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The Phoenix: Why Danny Manning Is On The Right Track Rebuilding Wake Forest Basketball

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After a 6-2 start with a brutal schedule, Danny Manning is proving in every phase of the program that he is determined to raise Wake Forest from the ashes, and no one should doubt him.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

It's worth noting that I started writing this piece in the immediate aftermath of the Harry Giles snub.  I proceeded to get sick, life got in the way, and I was working so hard on double duty with 3U3D that I'm just now finding the time to get back to it.  Since then, we've gotten some really quality and unexpected wins, and have seen flashes of basketball that did nothing but reaffirm my initial premise: we're going to be just fine.

No discussion can begin without context, and I think I'd be remiss if I used any context other than my own for parts of this narrative.  I arrived in Winston-Salem as a Wake Forest freshman in 2005, the year after Chris Paul's exit (or betrayal, depending on who you ask).  Justin Gray was left with the unenviable task of playing out of position to fill the hole left by CP3, and the ripple effect that his departure left on recruiting trail.  We were pretty bad that year, but there were bright spots, and with Skip Prosser and his fantastic assistants at the helm, we were bringing in eventually storied Deacs like Ish Smith and L.D. Williams, even though they weren't, say, McDonald's All-Americans  I don't need to go through the entire rest of the history for everyone; it's recent enough that I think pretty much everyone reading this remembers most of it. but I'll do a short recap anyway.

We dealt with the tragic, untimely passing of Skip Prosser.  There were the highs and lows of the Dino Gaudio tenure, from the amazing recruiting class to the #1 ranked season to the absolutely gross (seriously, I can't think of a better word at the moment) ousting at the hands of Cleveland State.  Then there was the Bzdelik Era, which I absolutely do not want to talk about.  The point is that in 10-ish years of following Wake Forest basketball, I've seen some of the highest highs and the lowest lows of the program.  I didn't suffer through, say, the Bob Staak years, nor did I get the elation of the Childress years, the Duncan years, or the two Paul years.  I've only had one slice, but it's a pretty complete slice.

All that in mind, I'd like to think I've "earned my stripes" as a Wake fan.  Sure, I don't have decades of experience, I've only been watching for about 10 years and analyzing for far less.  But in that time, I've really immersed myself, and short of an ACC championship in hoops, I've experienced pretty much everything there is to as a Deac fan, whether we're talking peaks or valleys.  Using this cred (if I have it in the first place), I'm going to make an extremely bold statement:

Danny Manning Might Just Be The Best Men's Basketball Coach That I Personally Have Seen At Wake.  Yes, Including Skip.

Now hear me out.  Skip is dearly missed, and his mark on the program will be felt forever.  I also concede that not only did I only catch the tail end of Skip's tenure, I also didn't understand hoops in those days the way that I do now, so I may well be underselling Skip.  However, in my opinion, there are three key tenets to any successful college head coach, and Coach Manning is showing excellence in all three; Recruiting, X's and O's, and Building of Men.  Let's talk a bit about each of them in a bit more detail under Coach Manning.

Recruiting

Coach isn't pulling in All-Americans just yet, but he's brought in four stars in Bryant Crawford,  John Collins, and Doral Moore, and one player who's on the fringe of that in Samuel Japhet-Mathias.  Add in the fact that guys like Mitchell Wilbekin, Konstantinos Mitoglou, and Cornelius Hudson are shaping up to be possible steals, and there's every reason to believe that not only can Coach Manning pull in big names, but he also seems to have the far more important skill of having an eye for talent.  It's not always about getting five stars.  Sometimes a four star or even an unheralded three star can be just as dominant, sometimes even more  The fact that Wake was even on Harry Giles's short list speaks volumes, and let's not forget that as of this writing, the team is winning.  Winning feeds recruiting 100% of the time.

X's and O's

I mean, this is pretty simple, but let's be honest.  Coach Manning is 6-2 with a brutal OOC schedule, missing key players as well as depth guys and is now 5-0 in games decided by 5 points or less.  Not only that, the depth issue is such that Coach Manning has had to give extended minutes to former walk-on Trent VanHorn.  All of that points to quality coaching and gameday execution.  There are weaker spots; the turnover rate needs to tighten up a lot, and there are periodically substitution patterns I question, but overall, it's hard to argue with results, and 6-2 under adverse circumstances with this schedule is almost assuredly results by any metric.

Building of Men

I'm wary in my more experienced analysis of talking too heavily about intangibles, but hear me out again.  Look at it from a player development standpoint.  Dinos Mitoglou and Devin Thomas have shown marked growth on the court under Manning's watch, and it's still early in his tenure.  Not only that, the suspensions of Cornelius Hudson and Rondale Watson, while unfortunate, are indicative of a firm but fair personality that will not only serve to bring quality young players into the program, it will also serve well in creating quality individuals outside of the program, both after graduation as well as off the court while Deacs.  We joked about the culture mantra during the last regime, but much like in other facets of the game as well, Coach Manning appears to be about the culture of integrity, growth, and playing winning basketball that other people seemingly just talked about.

So maybe it's a reach to say that Coach Manning may eclipse Skip, but here's my logic.  Not only is Coach Manning doing well in all phases of coaching, he's doing so quickly, after inheriting a situation that, if we're being diplomatic, was less than ideal, and if we're being brutally honest, was getting national attention for very much the wrong reasons  Coach Manning is still very young and inexperienced in head coaching terms, yet he's already accomplished a lot.  Assuming things keep progressing as they have been (a reasonable projection), and assuming Coach Manning stays at Wake and doesn't get poached by a bigger program if his success continues (admittedly a scary proposition worth discussing, but not until much further down the line), there's no telling where the program might end up once Coach Manning really gets a foothold.

Missing out on Harry Giles hurt.  It'd be disingenuous to say otherwise.  That being said, though, as long as I'm talking crazy and making wild assertions, I may as well go for broke and make one more:

Missing Out On Giles May Be A Blessing In Disguise.

Put aside the questions of Harry's health, because I don't even want to talk about the possibility, however real, of a young basketball talent that special being ravaged by injuries.  Snub or no snub, Duke or no Duke, that would be utterly tragic.  No, my reasons for saying it might be better (or perhaps less bad) than we think are very simple.  There's something to be said for "too much too soon", and this may just be impotent rationalization but the more I think about it, the more I feel like Harry Giles coming to Wake would've been exactly that.  Coach Manning is building a house here, and that takes a strong and steady foundation.  There may soon be a time for one and done players at Wake Forest.  However, now is not that time,  You need to get your feet under you before you take off running, or you risk tripping and falling on your face.

Whether you agree with my wild and crazy assertions or not, everything else I've said about Coach Manning is probably universally agreeable: recruiting is very good with glimpses at great, execution on gamedays is some of the best we've seen in some time, and Coach Manning, while perhaps something of a disciplinarian and/or a guy who puts his players through the ringer, really seems to have a reason for everything he does.  We're no longer lost at sea without a rudder.

The first non-recap piece I ever wrote for BSD, at its core, to do with the spirit of Wake Forest.  I was woefully incorrect on when and how it would reemerge, but the rest of my feelings on the matter remain the same.  Wake Forest basketball won't be good again; it will be GREAT again.  We've been through the fire.  Now the time has come to rise from the ashes.

Go Deacs.

--SF