During the halftime of Wake Forest's recent home victory versus Pittsburgh, the ESPN commentator Dino Gaudio made a pointed remark that Danny Manning was diligently working to return a winning culture back to the Wake Forest basketball program. For anyone not familiar with Dino Gaudio's history with the Wake Forest Basketball program (ie: for the non-Wake Forest fans reading this article), Dino was a former assistant to the late Skip Prosser who succeeded Skip as head coach upon the great and loved coach's passing. After three years, two NCAA tournament appearances, and one career winning percentage of .663, Dino Gaudio was released from his duties as head coach with the charge from Athletic Director Ron Wellman, that new head coach, Jeff Bzdelik, needed to change the culture of the Wake Forest program.
It is no small coincidence that Dino used the word culture when crafting his comment on the genesis of Maning's tenure as Wake Forest's head basketball coach. Coach Manning was hired due to the very apparent failures of his predecessor Jeff Bzdelik, and it was to this note that Dino Gaudio decided to make his honest but somewhat compensatory jab at the state of Wake Forest's basketball program. The question to be asked by knowledgeable basketball fans is: "what does establishing or renewing a winning culture look like?".
Danny Manning's playing career is littered with awards, honors, and championships, but when evaluating his own accomplishments it seems that Manning values one characteristic above all: PERSEVERANCE. It is almost impossible to listen to a Manning interview that references his career in which the former NCAA legend and NBA star fails to mention the trials and struggles that he faced as a player. In the same way that Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant view TENACITY as their core virtue, Danny Manning seems to hold perseverance closer to his heart than all other personal and playing traits. So when looking to define what culture change at Wake Forest is going to look like, this trait is where we must look first.
On Wednesday, February 25th, the Demon Deacons endured a historical embarrassing loss to the #2 ranked Virginia Cavaliers. In summary, Virginia could have failed to score in the second half and they would have still won by 2 points. Instead the Cavaliers scored 34 points and won on the road by 36 points. Four days later the Demon Deacons faced a desperate Pittsburgh team on the same court in which they were just trounced. Pittsburgh was firmly on the NCAA bubble, and needed to win at Wake Forest in order to continue their case for inclusion in the Big Dance.
With the season winding down for the Deacons and no NCAA or NIT postseason hopes on the line, a home game against an always physical and intense Pittsburgh team might seem a good opportunity to passively accept defeat. Wake Forest won in a back and forth affair that came down to the Deacons hitting free throws in the last minute to secure the victory. The last time the Deacons faced Pittsburgh it was with Jeff Bzdelik as the head coach. Wake Forest lost by 29 points in essentially a home game in the ACC Tournament.
So how did the Deacs persevere and garner a home win vs. the Pitt Panthers last night? The number one reason the Deacons won a game in which they were out-rebounded by 15, out-shot by 11 field goal attempts, and generally outplayed for most of the second half was they did not turn the ball over. In the first three minutes of the game, the Deacons turned the ball over three times. They did not turn the ball over again until the opening possession of the second half. This allowed the Deacons to withstand a furious offensive first half by Panthers and maintain a halftime lead despite allowing Pittsburgh to shoot almost 50% for the half. Wake Forest also failed to turn the ball over for the final 10 minutes of the game. In the waning seconds of the game, nursing a three point lead Wake Forest was forced to inbound the ball on the wrong side of half court, with no timeouts. Cornelius Hudson had seconds earlier drilled consecutive free throws to extend the Wake Forest lead from one to three, but Manning chose to put the ball in the hands of Miller-McIntyre to not only shoot the inevitable foul shots, but to more importantly secure the inbounds pass and potentially advance the ball against the press.
Most basketball fans might wonder why a coach would not do everything in his power to get the ball back into Hudson's hands out of the inbounds. Manning chose ball security over free throw skill at that point in the game. With a three point lead and a double bonus cushion, Manning knew that it would only take one free throw to make it a two possession game with less than 25 seconds remaining. The previous possession the Deacons did inbound the ball to Hudson, but Hudson was forced to call a timeout when he could not advance the ball and the Panthers resisted the immediate foul. Manning was smart enough to know that the one play that could change the momentum was a steal, and Manning adjusted his strategy accordingly.
Secondly Manning's substitution pattern was intriguing to watch last night. In Manning's pursuit of effort, some interesting lineups can sometimes materialize at critical moments in the game. By bringing Dinos Mitoglou off the bench, it allowed Manning to avoid the offensive stalemates that often occur during the course of a Wake Forest game. It is of little doubt that Dinos has already surpassed Darius Leonard as a player, but it is also of little doubt that the Deacons often face serious droughts on the offensive end. These droughts can lead to defensive lapses as frustration builds, and concentration subsequently lapses. Manning also gave Greg McClinton extended run in the first half versus Pittsburgh zone. McClinton was extremely effective in the mid post and as a disruptive force on the offensive glass. During a key stretch late in the second half when Pittsburgh seemingly could not miss, the Deacons held their lead with effective and efficient offensive sets.
Lastly, and most noticeably for Deacon fans, Manning coached Devin Thomas by sitting him down. Other than scoring his 1,000th career point minutes into the game, not much else went right for Thomas on the night. Thomas is trademarked as an aggressive rebounder, and several times in the second half he was simply outpositioned and outhustled for the ball. He was repeatedly frustrated on the offensive end as Pittsburgh flashed double teams at him all night. Even in instances where Devin established a deep post position, he was unable to effectively score or distribute. In two separate instances in the second half Devin wasted valuable time complaining to the referees about a non call instead of hustling back on defense to help his team. It was noticeable that Devin failed to enter the game in the final five minutes other than a brief possession at the end with the game somewhat decided. Manning chose to play Mitoglou and Leonard, rather than his star post player in the deciding moments of a key conference game.
Coach Manning displays his perseverance with his actions. Manning assessed this team upon his hiring, and evaluated our desperate need for shooters. Within a few months he had signed Mitchell Wilbekin, Cornelius Hudson, and Dinos Mitoglou. Those three players combined for 22 of Wake Forest's 37 first half points. Not surprisingly those three players are the #1,#2, & #3 ranked players on this team in free throw percentage, three point percentage, and three point makes. The 4th ranked three point shooter is Darius Leonard who is a post grad that Manning signed late in the recruiting process as well. Manning is not a loquacious man. He is simple and succinct in both his talk and mannerisms. It seems clear that Manning is choosing to renew the winning culture at Wake Forest by 'speaking softly and carrying a big stick'. Teddy Roosevelt famously claimed that doing so would take a man far in this life. Time will tell how far Manning can take the Deacons, and just how much perseverance will be required in the process.