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Early Season Thoughts on Substitution and Rotation Management

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In last night's loss to Richmond there were several bench management decisions made by Danny Manning that stuck out. Blogger So Dear takes a look at them and attempts to determine the thought process behind them.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

In a year and three games as the Wake Forest head basketball coach, Danny Manning has had some very unique substitution and rotation patterns at critical times in winnable games. This was quite clear to anybody that watched Wake Forest lose a close game to Richmond last night, and there are a few things that need to be looked at based on last night's game.

Most Wake Forest fans are working under the assumption that Coach Manning wanted to maximize the chances of the team to win last night against Richmond as his number one priority. I am not sure this is the case, and if so, then he failed miserably in my opinion. That leads me to believe that he was not overly worried about the win last night, but rather long term goals and the overall process.

With that being said, there were several reasons Wake lost the game last night that had nothing to do with the substitutions, in no particular order: turnovers, missed free throws, horrific defense (especially with zone rotations), bad closeouts on three point shots.

That being said, in my opinion the substitution pattern last night did not give Wake Forest the best chance to win.

There are three big questions in my mind that I will give my opinion on in this article:

1. Why did Trent VanHorn play so many minutes, especially late?

As I broke down in the minutes article I did earlier in the week, Wake Forest really only has an 8 man rotation. Walk-on Grant O'Brien is getting some minutes (he got 6 last night, but it is primarily utilized to just "fill" minutes and rest the other 8 players).

Most Wake Forest fans noticed, probably to a detriment in most of our eyes, that Trent VanHorn played 28 minutes last night despite getting thoroughly and consistently beat on the defensive end of the court. Not only was this the case throughout the game, he did not score.

From an offensive standpoint, if you have to play VanHorn for a lengthy amount of time (which is up for debate as to how many minutes he actually HAS to play), then he is probably doing what a coach would want. He's not taking shots, not making mental mistakes, and generally playing within the flow of the offense that Coach Manning wants to run.

His 24.1% turnover rate is problematic, but in my opinion is mostly based on his limitations as a basketball player rather than making mental mistakes.

This is the second consecutive game that VanHorn has played 28 minutes against a legitimate mid-major team, and unlike Sunday, Wake Forest did not win this game.

Across Twitter and OGBoards (and myself at the game as well), most Wake Forest fans wondered why he played so many minutes, especially when Greg McClinton played 22 and he was seemingly having a pretty good night.

My best guess is that Greg McClinton was not doing what the coaching staff wanted him to do as it pertained to the scouting report. In the post-game press conference Coach Manning mentioned ad nauseum about the scouting report and how the team did not "play to it." When pressed on this he didn't really expand his answer, instead deflecting and repeating himself.

Despite getting some early offensive rebounds and scoring on great dishes from Bryant Crawford, McClinton failed to close out on three-pointers, and in several cases didn't even get a hand up to contest. He also was not grabbing any defensive rebounds or playing very well within the flow of the offense.

Trent VanHorn, despite his shortcomings, did this most of the above consistently (sans rebounds, which isn't really being asked of him), and as I stated earlier, makes fewer "mental mistakes", and is therefore "playing to the scouting report" more.

This is the only thing that I can get out of this because McClinton is clearly the better offensive option, rebounder, athlete, and defender. That leaves only the mental game and not doing what the coaches are asking of him.

There are several other theories beyond this that I have read and thought about, but this is the only answer that makes sense to me: Trent VanHorn simply did what the coaches wanted him to do, and the staff is more interested in process and teaching now than they are fixated on immediate results.

2. How does the staff get John Collins get more minutes?

John Collins is averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds a game in just 12 minutes of game time. Not only is he putting up big numbers, he is showing a polished offensive game inside as a freshman that I have not seen from a Wake big man in a long time. Most believe he should get more minutes, and I certainly agree. 12 minutes is not enough based on the impact he is having on the game when he is in.

There are many different theories on how to get Collins more minutes, and it is somewhat odd that despite having a depleted bench we cannot find more minutes for a young freshman who is insanely efficient so far on the year.

Each theory as to how to get him on the court more has its own set of pros and cons depending on how you want to look at it.

I will go ahead and say that it's not as easy as saying (for example), "just move Dinos to the three and then play Devin Thomas at the four and John Collins at the five." This creates its own set of problems, the most glaring of which is: how would DInos guard the three spot on the other team?

The 4 position right now is the deepest that we have, with Devin Thomas, Dinos Mitoglou, and John Collins all suited to play that spot. Collins does a lot of the same things that Devin Thomas does inside, while Mitoglou is clearly more of a stretch four.

Collins only played 12 minutes, and I certainly want to see him getting more than that, but as Danny Manning said in the post-game press conference, it is difficult for him to supplant two guys that are getting double-doubles (as Thomas and Mitoglou).

It is somewhat obvious the Danny Manning does not like to play Collins and Thomas at the same time. This indicates to me that he believes they do the exact same thing and have the same type of impact on the game, so it's pointless to have them out there at the same time. I disagree with this line of reasoning, and think that playing Collins inside would allow Devin Thomas to step out, clear out the lane, and also be able to attack more from a triple-threat position.

I think there is a lot to be said for the defensive side of the ball (that Manning did not address at all), where Dinos struggles immensely to: stay in front of his man, rotate to help defensively, communicate effectively on switches, but overall I agree that players who are providing double-doubles consistently need to be on the court.

In an ideal world in my mind, out of the 80 possible minutes available at the PF (4), and C (5) positions, it would break down like this: Thomas (30 minutes), Dinos (25 minutes), John Collins (25 minutes).

Then for a few minutes each game you slide either Dinos or Collins to the three, and Doral Moore comes in for some high energy bench minutes. This mitigates the amount of time that players are out of position, and also allows John Collins to not have to worry about learning multiple positions at one time within Manning's system beyond a few minutes a game.

He can certainly defend the SF spot for a few minutes a game in man-to-man without too much fatigue or deficiency in his lateral foot speed. When Mitoglou goes to the 3 (with Thomas and Moore at the 4/5), a 2-3 zone would be ideal to hide his defense.

This is resource management that will continue to be looked at even when Crab gets back because we can only play five players at once, and we currently have three skilled "big men" for two spots (without even mentioning spot minutes for Doral).

This leads me to my final question...

3. What does last night indicate, if anything, about Coach Manning's acumen on substitutions and bench management?

One of the most glaring observations hat I have noticed with Coach Manning and his substitution pattern is his strict adherence to playing players at their set position. If you are a SF (3), then you are going to play a SF (3) position, and you will be subbing back and forth directly with somebody else who also plays the 3 position.

This can be good at times, particularly early on for players to understand their role and what their position within the team is, but it can also be detrimental because there is no abstract lineup thought and eliminates creativity. It prevents Wake from going "big", or "small" at any given time, and instead of matching up and exploiting advantages the Deacs may have against an opponent is it more of the "we are going to do what we do, and it is up to the other team to stop us."

That works fine if your system and talent level is proven to be difficult to beat, and that is simply not the case so far with Wake Forest basketball.

I think that there are legitimate concerns and questions regarding Coach Manning and his ability to manage a bench, especially one that is as dynamic as the current roster is at full staff. Creativity is not one of his strong points, and we saw last night that stick out last night (and several times last season)

There is also the possibility that his going with the NBA thought of early season minute management to maximize playing time and depth later in the season, but unlike the NBA these early season games can matter down the stretch when trying to gain entry into post-season tournaments.

Conclusion

Most of this conversation would be rendered a moot point if Cornelius Hudson is not suspended, and in his post-game press conference Danny Manning indicated that Hudson will travel with the team, so hopefully he will play against Indiana on Monday night.

Once Hudson and Codi are back I believe our best starting lineup is: CMM, Crawford, Crab, Thomas, and Collins, with the other guys coming off the bench. It is a very talented lineup, and has strong players at every single position. The talent level is certainly there to make post-season play at full strength, but there is a razor-thin margin to do so.

In my opinion, last night Coach Manning, intentional or not, sacrificed a winnable game for teachable moments and adherence to the process instead of immediate results. That is frustrating at its core to fans, and a lot of time hard to understand in the "we want wins now" world.

Whether or not this strategy will reap dividends down the road is a question that I do not yet know the answer to, but I believe that Coach Manning does have a good idea and grasp of what he is doing. Time will tell whether it will be a successful strategy later this year and beyond.