Last year, Danny Manning led the Wake Forest Demon Deacons to a 13-19 record in his first season in Winston-Salem. Wake Forest had a worse record than they had in Jeff Bzdelik's final season, but the program clearly appeared to be trending in the correct direction. Manning signed an excellent recruiting class, which clearly paid dividends in Monday's victory over Indiana, and brought a winning attitude to a program that badly needed it.
Jeff Bzdelik won just two ACC road games during his four seasons at Wake Forest. Manning's teams came damn close several times last season, but the Deacs finished 0-9 on the road in ACC play. Still, Bzdelik's teams had a tendency to get blown out on the road, and Manning's were typically very competitive. There was the three-point loss at Syracuse in overtime. There was the last-second loss at Clemson. There was the double-overtime loss at Florida State, and there was the gut-wrenching one-point loss at #2 Virginia.
At home, Manning's teams put up valiant efforts against #5 Louisville and #2 Duke. Against Louisville, the Deacs found themselves down just one point with less than 4 minutes remaining in the game. Against Duke, the Deacs once again found themselves down just one point with less than 4 minutes to go. Once again, they did not finish.
A theme had been that Manning's teams had been close, but no cigar. Still, it was encouraging. But as Manning said, moral victories get you fired. On Monday afternoon, Manning and his team mounted a 14-3 comeback late in the second half to beat the #13 Indiana Hoosiers. It was Manning's first win at Wake Forest against a ranked opponent, and it was Wake's first neutral site/road win against a ranked opponent since December 5, 2009 when they defeated Gonzaga.
Tonight's win was huge. It was a national stage, in a major early season tournament, against a top team, who also happens to be a top program. Indiana played excellent on offense, and Wake just played better. Wake looked to be out of it with a few minutes to go, but they fought back and won. Manning said that he scheduled non-conference opponents to challenge his team, and it has paid off. Wake Forest does not win this game if they do not schedule the Bucknell game. While Bucknell is not Indiana, it's still a game against a difficult opponent in a tough environment.
Manning somehow navigated the Deacs to win without Codi Miller-McIntyre and Cornelius Hudson. They did it despite turning it over on 23% of possessions. They won the rebounding battle by 13, and that's exactly the type of team that Manning wants to build at Wake Forest. Who has Manning added since he's been at Wake? Dinos Mitoglou, Mitchell Wilbekin, Cornelius Hudson, Bryant Crawford, John Collins, and Doral Moore. Those players combined for 54 of the team's 82 points tonight. He's also clearly proven his worth as a big man coach, by the growth that Devin Thomas has seen this season.
Manning has tangible evidence that what he's doing at Wake Forest is working. Wake fans are pumped. In many ways, this was the biggest win Wake Forest has had since their 2010 NCAA Tournament victory over Texas. I won't jump to conclusions about where this season can go, but I"m very excited with what Wake has accomplished without Codi and Cornelius. If Wake can get the same strong play from the big men, and improved guard play, then perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss Wake's chances at making a postseason tournament. Something tells me that Manning isn't done winning big games at Wake Forest.