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Deacons take two steps forward, one step back

An early season look at the development of the Wake Forest players and their team fundamentals.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

After three games, the Demon Deacons have accumulated two wins and one loss. Two of the Deacons primary contributors have missed the beginning of the season. Codi Miller-McIntyre has been rehabbing a broken foot, and Cornelius Hudson has been rehabbing his image with Coach Manning due to team violations of an unspecified nature. To provide a proper evaluation of the first three games of the season, these absences must be taken into account.

Dinos Mitoglu has started the season in much the same way he played last season.  He has been a consistent three point threat, yet limited in offensive game outside of the catch and shoot.  Manning is clearly trying to create opportunities for Dinos to dribble drive, but up to this point Dinos has failed to take advantage in a dependable fashion.

In much the same way, Mitchell Wilbekin is a returning sophomore who has pretty much played in a similar fashion to his freshman season.  The one area Mitchell must improve upon for the Deacons to have success is his ability to defend dribble penetration.  At 6’1", he simply cannot afford to allow the offensive player to beat him laterally off the dribble.

Greg McClinton is another player for the Deacons who is returning for his second year.  When McClinton has stayed within his game, he has been very effective.  The problem with playing McClinton too many minutes is that he has zero perimeter skills with the ball.  His entire offensive game is predicated on offensive rebounds or backdoor cuts around the basket. For him to be effective, it requires Dinos to live on the perimeter which isn’t always a good thing.

Devin Thomas is the one returning player on the team that has come out of the gates playing great basketball.  He has stayed within himself, played smart, aggressive basketball, and has given himself a great start to his senior year.   Devin’s free throw shooting will always be an area of concern, but a great many of his misses have been solid shots, and his percentage should rise as the season progresses.

The three freshman have been a mixed bag of upside and mistakes during the first few games of this season.  Bryant Crawford is leading the team in minutes as he attempts to run a team that is missing its primary ball handler from the past two seasons.  Bryant started the year with a dud, but has bounced back in the last two games to provide glimpses of the kind of point guard he can become.

His mistakes are many, but he is showing that he can score in the paint and from the perimeter. While his on ball defense has been impressive at times, his mental lapses on both ends of the court have cost the Deacons possessions and points.  Bryant is carrying a heavy load without Codi in the lineup, and he has performed admirably.  Bryant’s efficiency one offense, and his mental lapses on defense should improve once Codi is able to return and help carry the burden.

John Collins is already one of the Deacons top offensive players.  Thus far he has been almost unstoppable in one on one situations in the post.  He has a beautiful jump hook, and is an explosive athlete, particularly when he is able to jump stop and power the ball through the defender.  One of the most encouraging signs in Collins’ game is his free throw stroke.  While he has only hit 64% of his attempts thus far, it is clear that his form is solid, and he should become a plus foul shooter during his time at Wake.

For a forward with an explosive first step, and almost elite quickness in the post, Collins is going to score a lot of points from the free throw line.   While Collins offensive contribution has been excellent, his defense leaves much to be desired.  He is often out of position, and has sometimes completely lost his man.  Collins needs much seasoning on the defensive end.  Manning has his work cut out for him with Collins, as the Deacons are going to need Collins’ offense, but simply can’t afford to live with his defensive lapses.

The last freshman of the group, Doral Moore, has played minimal minutes for the Deacons thus far.  Moore has played well in the time he has been given, but still has a lot of learning to do before he can count on a larger share of the minutes in the post.  It is clear Moore is spending a lot of time working on his post moves, and he has impressed with a nice baby hook in the post several times.

Defensively he is a presence in the paint who simply needs to continue to work on his fundamentals.  Indecision can cause a player to hesitate on defense, and several times Moore has been a half a step to slow on his rotation only to allow a score or garner a foul.  As Moore becomes more comfortable with Manning’s defensive fundamentals he will get better and better at executing them.

Trent VanHorn, a junior guard who earned a scholarship this year, is averaging a whopping twenty seven minutes a game.  While he has performed admirably within his abilities, the reality is that his athletic ability does not allow him to consistently compete at this level.  This was plainly evident in the Richmond game as in the first half VanHorn allowed back door cuts for layups multiple times, and simply could not stay in front of his man.  The value of the return of Hudson and Codi could not be more emphasized by the reality that VanHorn is playing almost thirty minutes per game.

Offensively, the Deacons are having success, due primarily to their front court.  They have three very talented scorers in Devin, Dinos, and Collins who all are able to score in a variety of ways.  The missing ingredient seems to be perimeter shooting, which has plagued the Deacons for the past half-decade.

While Codi is not an accomplished shooter, he is one of the best penetrators in the ACC, and will help create shots for Dinos by collapsing the defense in the lane.  Hudson is also the Deacons best shooter, and will be a huge boost to the offensive capabilities of the Deacons upon his return from purgatory.

Manning would do well to incorporate more high-low opportunities.  During the Richmond game the Deacons were most effective on offense running a 4 out / 1 in offense with a post player feed the post from the top of the key.  It is very difficult for the defense to help with anyone outside of a guard in this setup.  Devin and Collins could both benefit from one on one opportunities in the lane, and Dinos would be a great player to feed the post from the top of the key.

Defensively the Deacons have been less than adequate.  Manning made his name at Tulsa with his team’s defensive efficiency, and thus far this has not translated to his time in Winston-Salem.

There are two fundamentals that the Deacons are consistently failing to enact that will go a long ways towards solving their defensive woes.

The first is a very simple adjustment.  The Deacons must attack the shooting hand on a perimeter shot.  After re-watching the game vs. Richmond it is clear that this fundamental is not taught.  Shot after shot is put up on the perimeter and the Deacons will put a hand up, but it will be to the non-shooting side of the offensive player.

Opponents are shooting over 40% from behind the three point arc, and part of that is they aren’t feeling pressure when they shoot the ball.  When you attack the shooting side it allows the defender to put slightly more pressure on the shot release which can make a big impact.  It can also prevent shooting fouls as the defender can prevent himself from jumping across the shooter's body.

Secondly, Wake Forest must do a better job of giving early help the dribble penetration.  Too often the primary help is caught flat footed and out of position, allowing the opponent to breeze past the first line of defense.  This causes the rest of the defense to be forced into rotation as the secondary help is required to step up into the lane to prevent the layup.

The inevitable result of continually requiring the secondary help defender to stop dribble penetration is that the opponent skip passes the ball to the opposite side of the court leaving a shooter with an open look.

This is the primary defensive fundamental that Manning must cure before the Deacons expect to stop anyone on defense.  One on one defense is a tough task in this era of college basketball.  Touch fouls are the norm, and the level of talent is as high as it has ever been.  Teams like Richmond have guard play that can match many high major programs.  The Deacons must learn to help early, or they will continue to give up open looks on the opposite side of the court.

The last and most curious observation of the first three games has been attempting to figure out Coach Manning’s player rotations.  He is most certainly hamstrung by his starting shooting guard and small forward sitting on his bench, but it has been mind boggling to see the extended play of VanHorn, and the lack of play for Collins.

Manning is doing a great job in building the Wake Forest brand back to national respectability after the demolition job by his predecessor, but it seems that his rotations are sometimes without purpose.  There have been extended series where both O’Brien, a senior walk on, and VanHorn, a former walk on, have received minutes side by side on the court.

The only situation in which it would seem proper to play O’Brien over a player like Collins or McClinton would be if the Deacons are up by 30 or down by 30.  The reality is that Crawford, Collins, and Moore need as much time as the Deacons can manage to jump start their adjustment process.  Manning will be forced to tighten his rotation as Hudson and Codi return, and that should be a very good thing for the Deacons.

Considering they are without their two most talented returning guards, Wake Forest has performed admirably during this first stretch of games.  As they travel to Hawaii to face a slate of solid high major programs, Wake Forest will need to shore up their defensive fundamentals and play more to the strengths of their offensive capabilities.   The three freshmen must continue to grow, and Devin must continue to lead by example as they wait for Hudson and Codi to return to game action.