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Wake Forest: Non-Conference Recap and Ultimate ACC Schedule Breakdown

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How did Wake Forest perform in the non-conference season and what do they need to do in the ACC to get into the NCAA's?

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Well, the difficult non-conference schedule for Wake Forest basketball is officially in the books and it would be hard to deem it anything other than a success. Danny Manning challenged his young squad with multiple games against competitive programs in the months of November and December and many believed it could backfire given the injuries and suspensions sustained early in the year.

The Deacs, however, started the season like a team on a mission, going 9-3 with 5 wins against Power 5 conference programs and a 3rd place showing in the prestigious Maui Invitational. Many people, including myself, saw 7-8 wins as the expected total heading into ACC play, but some late-game heroics and unexpected clutch free throw shooting has put Wake in an excellent position to earn its first postseason birth since the Guadio era this March.

Let’s take a look at the remaining schedule and what Wake needs to do to get there.

First, I’d like to bring up this graphic from an article I wrote back in October that labeled each game this season into one of five categories: Cupcakes, Trap Games, 50-50’s, Uphill Battles, and Quad-Rollers. Each game, based on the opponent’s 2014-15 season, key additions, and the location of the contest, was placed in one of these five categories and a W-L projection for each five categories was then assigned.

I find this to be a much better way to predict a season rather than simply guessing for each game, as individual results can be incredibly random. An aggregate W-L guess tactic (You’ll win some you shouldn’t and lose some you shouldn’t) is a more appropriate approach in my opinion.

These were the descriptions of each section back from that October piece:

The Trap Games- In the past five years, games where Wake comes into the matchup favored by 5-10 points are few and far between. They do exist, however, and there are a few of them on the schedule this season. These are matchups where the Deacs should win, but nothing is truly guaranteed. Think Iona last season.

The 50-50’s- Now, this is really the category that decides the season. If you don’t win a majority of the games where the matchup is a toss-up, you won’t be finding yourself playing in late March. That’s just the reality. In the last few years Wake has really struggled closing out games like this, most notably against Clemson and FSU on the road last season.

The Uphill Battles- Uphill Battles are certainly winnable, but not without a great team performance for a whole 40 minutes. Games against lower top 25 opponents at home or top 40 Kenpom teams in the ACC on the road would fall into this category.

The Quad Rollers- These are the "court-stormers," the "2 full minutes of highlights on Sportscenter," and the "How the hell did Cavenaugh just do that?" type games if we pull out a victory. But it ain’t going to be easy. Last season Wake fell apart in a couple of these games, particularly Duke on the road and UVA at home. If you win, it’s phenomenal. If you don’t, life moves on as expected.

And now the results:

As you can see, Wake took care of the two Cupcakes (UMBC and UNCG), though the point differential left a little to be desired. In terms of Trap Games (Matchups they should be favored in, but face tricky competition) the Deacs are 3-1 so far with BC and VA Tech still to go. I expect them to uphold that 5-1 projection based on the seasons BC and VA Tech are having and the fact both those games are at the Joel.

In terms of 50-50 games, Wake is very much on pace to reach 7 still and would simply have to go 4-3 the rest of the way to get to that mark. I think 8 is definitely a possibility, but given the fact that teams like Georgia Tech and Pitt look a lot more competitive than initially thought, 7 seems like a fair assumption.

I only gave Wake one win in the Uphill Battles projections in October, but with Tuesday’s victory over LSU they have already matched that total. Truth be told, that game looked far more challenging at the beginning of the year than it did during the pregame a few days ago, but a road win against a potential NIT P5 team is still helpful nonetheless. I definitely think Wake could pick up 1-2 more wins in this section, Notre Dame at Home and NC State Away being the most likely.

As for Quad Rollers, one win in this section seems reasonable as well given the fact that Duke, UVA, Notre Dame, and UNC all have shown signs of weakness at this point of the season. UVA might the toughest matchup in that group right now, but we've seen in the past that Wake can compete with anybody at the Joel if the energy is there. The Duke home game would've been a perfect opportunity for an upset if the student body was still on campus, but we clearly upset the Scheduling Gods for the 2nd year in a row and once again won't get that luxury.

You might be asking "You only added 1-2 wins to the overall win total after this strong start?" The thing is, those 1-2 additional wins are probably the difference between Wake being a postseason team or not. In my initial projection I had the Deacs at 16-14 heading into the ACC tournament and desperately needing a DEEP run in Washington DC to have any sort of chance at even being considered a bubble team.

If Wake can be sitting at 18-12 (9-9) heading into the ACC tournament, two more wins could very much solidify the Deacs’ spot as an at-large team in the Big Dance. This is where that difficult non-conference schedule could come in handy, as Wake will have W’s over expected NCAA teams UCLA and IU, a likely NIT team in LSU, and no bad losses to speak of. That will look a heck of a lot better than a lot of other P5 bubble teams that have cruised through OOC play without a substantial victory or endured a loss to a low-major like many in the ACC have.

Richmond, Vandy, and Xavier all look poised to be in the tournament in March and given how balanced the conference is this year, I don’t see many opportunities for a "Bad Loss" to occur. In past years an ACC bubble team losing to an ACC bottom feeder might be considered a "Bad Loss", but with Wake, GA Tech, and Virginia Tech all stepping up their games, the list of these weakly respected teams has diminished, and only losses to BC or Clemson are the nightmare resume killers.

That being said, where would those wins come from?

Let’s look at each ACC team and how they fared in non-conference play.

Boston College

Record: 7-6

Big Wins: None

Bad Losses: UMass Lowell, Santa Clara

RPI: 202, Kenpom: 188

Record Against RPI Top 100: 0-4

Note: Likely the worst team in the ACC by a good margin, BC is an absolute must-win for Wake Forest when they come to the Joel in February. Finding ways to put the ball in the basket without Olivier Hanlan seems to be the main problem for the Golden Eagles, as they rank 288th in the country in scoring (67.5 PPG) and 206th in FG% (43%).

Clemson

Record: 7-5

Big Wins: None

Bad Losses: UMass

RPI: 236, Kenpom: 95

Record Against RPI Top 100: 0-3

Note: While Clemson did dominate a Rutgers side that WF struggled with last month, a 17-point loss to UMass at home is likely going to leave a bad taste in the selection committees’ mouth if they are indeed a bubble team in March. The Tigers also went 1-4 against P5 opponents, including a 23-point loss to Georgia on the road.

Duke

Record: 11-2

Big Wins: Indiana

Bad Losses: None

RPI: 19, Kenpom 9

Record Against RPI Top 100: 2-2

Note: For all the love Duke gets, this team didn’t really challenge itself in the non-conference schedule or have that strong a showing. Duke fell in its two toughest matchups (Kentucky and Utah) and apart from an IU victory, doesn’t have any key wins to its name. That also has to do with the fact that victories over perennially strong programs VCU and Georgetown look underwhelming so far (Ranked 108 and 136 in RPI respectively).

Florida State

Record: 10-2

Big Wins: Florida

Bad Losses: Hofstra

RPI: 59, Kenpom: 37

Record Against RPI Top 100: 1-1

Note: Florida State barely challenged themselves in their non-conference slate with only a rivalry game against UF and an ACC-Big 10 Challenge matchup being their real competition. They went 1-1 in these games and 9-1 the rest of the way. Freshman Dwayne Bacon has been absolutely dominant for the Noles since he arrived, averaging 17.8 PPG and shooting 52.6% from the field. He also hit the game winner to give them the W over the Gators last week.

Georgia Tech

Record: 10-3

Big Wins: Tennessee

Bad Losses: ETSU

RPI: 67, Kenpom: 79

Record Against RPI Top 100: 1-2

Note: Many Tech fans were disappointed when it was announced Brian Gregory would be back for the 2015-2016 season, but so far he has silenced a few critics with GT’s strong November and December. Along with the Tennessee victory, the Yellow Jackets also have W’s over Arkansas and VCU. Senior F Charles Mitchell and his double-double average is a big reason for GT’s early success and why the team ranks 30th in the nation in rebounding with 41.8 per game.

Louisville

Record: 11-2

Big Wins: None

Bad Losses: None

RPI: 28, Kenpom: 5

Record Against RPI Top 100: 0-2

Note: That isn’t a typo above when I say the Cards have no big wins or losses to date. Their schedule was the college basketball equivalent of NC State football’s "bowl-proof" strategy the last few years of loading up with as many low-majors as possible before the conference season hits. They did play #3 MSU and #12 UK close on the road as well, but ended up falling both times. Their best win of the year so far is a toss up between Grand Canyon and Eastern Michigan and they have played 3 teams ranked 300 or lower in Kenpom. In the wise words of Pepper Brooks, "It’s an interesting strategy Cotton. Let’s see how it pays off for them."

Miami

Record: 11-1

Big Wins: Utah, Butler, Florida, College of Charleston

Bad Losses: Northeastern

RPI: 16, Kenpom: 12

Record Against RPI Top 100: 4-1

Note: Possibly the most subtly strong team in the ACC this year has come out firing on all cylinders to start the season. Miami is 2-0 against Top 25 teams (Utah and Butler) and the Utes victory was by 24 at a neutral site. Time will tell if the Northeastern loss at home ends up being a bad one, but at the moment the Huskies are 91 in RPI, 86 in Kenpom and look ready to challenge College of Charleston for the CAA title. I put the loss up there for the time being, but a last second defeat to Northeastern is nothing to be ashamed of. Miami will be near the top of the standings all season long.

NC State

Record: 10-3

Big Wins: LSU,

Bad Losses: William & Mary

RPI: 89 Kenpom: 71

Record Against RPI Top 100: 1-3

Note: NC State and Wake shared a lot of non-conference opponents this year so it’s worth making some comparisons. The Pack took down Bucknell by 13, UNCG by 6, and LSU by 9. Wake Forest, on the other hand, notched 3 victories against these opponents by the score of 8, 10, and 6. I think NCSU and Wake Forest have a lot of similarities in their composition based on senior leadership and youth production and I would expect the two teams to finish relatively near one another in the standings at the end of the season. Their resumes so far are very similar and likely will stay that way over the course of the next few months.

UNC

Record: 11-2

Big Wins: Northwestern, Maryland, Kansas State, UCLA

Bad Losses: None

RPI: 9, Kenpom: 11

Record Against RPI Top 100: 5-2

Note: While UNC has not been as dominant as some expected this year, the Heels are still in a very good spot heading into ACC play. The highlight win was a throwback ACC matchup over Maryland back in early December in Marcus Paige’s debut when the Terps were #2 in the country. UNC did stumble against Northern Iowa and Texas, but two losses to top 100 RPI teams on the road by a combined six points is forgivable. UNC might not be the powerhouse that many expected, but they are still my pick to win the ACC and should be in consideration for a #1 overall seed when it’s all said and done.

Notre Dame

Record: 9-3

Big Wins: Iowa, Illinois

Bad Losses: None

RPI: 61, Kenpom: 33

Record Against RPI Top 100: 3-2

Note: First off, the Irish’s ACC-Big 10 Challenge victory of Iowa sure looks a whole lot more impressive after the Hawkeyes downed #1 Sparty this past week. Also a home Monmouth loss that originally looked like a nightmare turned out to be perfectly reasonable given the small New Jersey school’s recent trend of big wins against P5 programs.

Side Note: Don’t look now, but Monmouth is only one spot behind Duke in RPI right now at #20. Ranking systems are fun aren’t they?

What makes ND so dangerous is that they have five players that can takeover a ball game any given night; the leader, of course, being Demetrius Jackson who is shooting 51% from the field as a PG. Also Senior PF Zach Auguste has nearly identical numbers to Devin Thomas at this point of the season.

Auguste: 14.3 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.0 APG, 56% FG, 62% FT, 29 MPG

Thomas: 16.6 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 2.1 APG, 57% FG, 59% FT, 28 MPG

The matchup between these two on January 31 is going to be awfully fun to watch.

Pittsburgh

Record: 10-1

Big Wins: Davidson

Bad Losses: None

RPI: 25, Kenpom: 24

Record Against RPI Top 100: 3-1

Note: The 4-1 record against the RPI top 100 is a bit deceiving as the non-conference schedule for Pitt was just as cupcake loaded as UL’s with a deeper look. 9 of Pitt’s non-conference victories had an average Kenpom rank of 178.8 and only one of these teams (Davidson) was inside the top 120. The other victory? A 41-point thrashing of DII team St. Joseph’s College. The Panthers’ only true contest came against Isaac Haas and co. in a 13-point home loss to Purdue. Don’t be fooled by the high RPI and top 25 votes, we really won’t know how this Pitt team is going to perform until the ACC season gets into full swing.

Syracuse

Record: 10-3

Big Wins: UConn, Texas A&M

Bad Losses: St. John’s

RPI: 66, Kenpom: 58

Record Against RPI Top 100: 3-1

Note: Syracuse has two neutral site top 25 victories to date and both will come in handy later on in the season if the Orange are competing for an at-large bid. The only question is how will Syracuse perform without Jim Boeheim for the first half of the ACC year. Syracuse already lost their ACC opener to Pitt on Wednesday and has @Miami, UNC, @WF, @Duke, @UVA, and Notre Dame as matchups during the suspension. If Syracuse gets off to a slow start without their hall of fame coach at the helm, it might end up being too late once he is back given how balanced the league is this year. Of course, getting to play Boston College twice in their schedule will help.

Virginia

Record: 11-1

Big Wins: West Virginia, Villanova, Cal

Bad Losses: None

RPI: 10, Kenpom 4

Record Against RPI Top 100: 7-1

Note: UVA may have lost Justin Anderson to the draft last season, but that doesn’t mean this UVA squad isn’t terrifying to face in 2016. UVA is coming off a December in which they went 6-0 against Ohio State, William & Mary, Nova, West Virginia, Cal, and Oakland. You probably can’t find a more impressive non-conference streak in college basketball this season as all of those wins came against teams inside the top 100 in RPI. Even scarier is the fact that four of those wins were by 10 points or more. A home loss to Tyler Cavenaugh and the Colonials of GW is respectable now considering they look set to be a tournament team after starting the year 11-2. What’s the key to UVA’s success? The team is only allowing 59.1 PPG so far this year, good for 8th in the nation and 1st in the ACC.

Virginia Tech

Record: 8-5

Big Wins: None

Bad Losses: Alabama State

RPI: 151, Kenpom: 135

Record Against RPI Top 100: 0-4

Note: Virginia Tech’s out of conference resume this year is weak not because of poor scheduling, but rather the team just didn’t rise to the occasion in big games. The Hokies went 1-5 against opponents in the top 150 of RPI with the sole win coming against UAB at home. In VT’s three toughest games (Iowa State, St. Joes, and WVU) they fell by a combined 21.3 PPG and were hardly competitive. Analysts keep mentioning how the ACC is better this year because teams like GT, WFU, FSU, and VT are much improved, but I still think the first three are a level up from Buzz Williams’ squad.

And for comparison:

Wake Forest

Record: 9-3

Big Wins: Indiana, UCLA, LSU

Bad Losses: None

RPI: 54, Kenpom: 91

Record Against RPI Top 100: 2-3

Note: Wake's non-conference performance was one of the more impressive in the ACC this season. Wake managed to get through its first twelve games with three wins against likely postseason teams, no bad losses, and a fair amount of buzz surrounding the program. The Deacs rank low in Kenpom due to a very mediocre Adjusted Defensive Efficiency Rating (ranked 157), which coincides with the fact that WF found itself in close battles with a lot of teams it shouldn't have (UMBC, UNCG, Coastal, Rutgers, etc). The Deacs right now rank #1 in "Luck" in Kenpom, which I think would be the first time in Wake Forest history any sports team was considered lucky. You might see it as discouraging, but I'll take "lucky and 9-3" over "good and 7-5" any day of the week.

Now that we’ve looked at each ACC opponent and how they performed in the non-conference, let’s check out Wake’s schedule chronologically from here until the ACC tournament. Right now, the Deacs sit at 9-3 and likely would need a .500 record in the conference to put themselves in a prime position for an at-large bid heading into the ACCT.

At 18-12 and 9-9 in the conference, the Deacs would have a favorable matchup in the 2nd round of the ACC tournament and then a tougher game in the Quarterfinals against a Miami, Duke, etc. Of course, the more wins Wake can put together in the ACCT, the much better shot it has at getting into the field of 68.

So where would the 9 wins in the ACC come from?

I’ve broken the Deacs’ schedule into five separate sections throughout the season. These sections are based on how I think most fans would view upcoming games. For example, when a fan says, "Oh, we have a tough stretch coming up" they are likely only referring to a few games just ahead. Those games are thus their own section. Here are my five sections from here until the ACCT:

Section I: The Tough Start

Section II: A Brief Break

Section III: A Brutal 11 Days

Section IV: The Month of Toss-Ups

Section V: The Trip to Cameron

Wake starts off the ACC season with a brutal opening three games against UL, Duke and NC State. Louisville has yet to earn a solid win on the year, but I still fear Wake will be on its heels all night long in Kentucky. Duke is weaker than last year as well, but hosting the Blue Devils without the students on campus yet again will lead to a fairly balanced crowd between blue and black/gold.

Finally, Wake should be favored against State at the Joel, but having seen a slew of guards this season go off against WF, Cat Barber could put the Pack on his back for a surprise road W. One win out of this section and I would be pleased. Two wins and I’d be ecstatic. The key is to not open up the conference season 0-3 and lose all the momentum the team has built up to this point.

The next section is a two game set against VT and Cuse in a span of four days. Of course nothing is guaranteed, but these are the games Wake must win if they want to make it much easier on themselves in February. Cuse will still be without Jim Boeheim and Virginia Tech very well could be coming into our game 0-3 after matchups with NCSU, UVA, and Duke, but a 1-1 split is a fair guess.

Next we have the four game stretch where we’ll really know what this team is made of. After a 2-3 or 3-2 start to the year, does Wake push on against tough opponents and stay close to .500 or falter and be forced to make up ground in February. With Miami exceeding expectations, UVA suffocating opponent offenses, UNC the favorite for the title, and Notre Dame coming off a dominant ACC home record last year (16-2) the Deacs could drop all four if they aren’t careful.

Since this year's team has proven to be resilient and stay in contests against good teams, I think one of these games WF will be able to pull out late and earn a hard-earned upset victory. But one win is the ceiling here and sadly there’s little reason to think there’s anything more than that.

After the first 9 games of ACC play, I have the Deacs at 3-6 heading into February. That means 2/3 of the remaining matchups would need to go Wake’s way if they wanted to end up at 18 W’s by the end of the season. Fortunately, the schedule is a lot more favorable from here on out, it’s just a matter of if the team is still confident and in a rhythm after a tough first month.

Of the next eight games, I feel comfortable in saying not a single one of them is unwinnable or a serious challenge. Clemson might challenge BC for the worst in the conference this year and both haves dates with the Deacs in the month of February. Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, NC State, Pitt, FSU, and Notre Dame; three of which are home, join them in this section. The average Kenpom rank of Section IV of the schedule is 82.8, and two of the toughest matchups (FSU and ND) are at the Joel where Wake will likely be favored.

With the last game of the season being away at Cameron Indoor where the Deacs have struggled mightily in recent years, Section IV is where WF will need to pick up the bulk of its wins. If Wake wants to get to 9-9 on the year, they will either need to go 6-2 in this section given my other predictions, or 5-3 in this section and sweep VA Tech and Syracuse in Section II. I just don’t see many other options on the schedule for wins given the way the schedule worked out this year.

While it might be more stressful, the 6-2 February route would mean Wake is peaking as it heads into the ACCT and that could come in handy given the team needs to pick up at least one win in Washington to have a chance at an at-large bid. I personally see 8 wins in the regular season as you can see from my predictions on the side, which would put the Deacs at 17-13 and desperate for a deep ACCT run. At that point it really becomes semifinal or bust for the Deacs if they want to avoid the NIT.

An 8-10 record would have finished tied for 9th last year and solely in 10th the year before. The last team to make the NCAA tournament with a below .500 ACC record was Georgia Tech (7-9) in 2009-10. One problem, however, is that no more than 6 teams have gotten a bid from the ACC since the league expanded in 2013.

Finally, let’s look at an ideal scenario where the Deacs go 9-9 in the conference and pick up two wins in the ACC tournament to be 20-13 on Selection Sunday. Is this good enough for a bid to the big dance?

Let’s compare with the Last Four In of the previous two years.

For Wake’s RPI projection I matched it’s non-conference schedule and middle of the pack regular season performance with comparable ACC teams of previous seasons and came up with a range of 45-55 where the Deacs would likely end up. For comparison, the average RPI of the Last Four In for the tournament in 2014 and 2015 was 47.9.

As for the projected records against the RPI Top 50, RPI Top 100, and Ranked Opponents, I assessed roughly where each opponent of Wake’s would finish at the end of the season based on current performance and ranking and assigned W-L’s appropriately throughout the season. Currently Wake is 0-2 against the RPI Top 50 (Xavier and Vanderbilt) and has Duke (2), UVA, UNC, Miami, Pitt, and UL in this category. Pittsburgh may drop out of the top 50 by the time the game occurs, but for now I have them in.

As for the RPI Top 100 record, Wake is currently 2-3 and given the fact that VT (2), Clemson, and BC games may be the only ACC matchups Wake will have against 100+ opponents, I arrived at 7-12 as a fair estimate (5-9 against all other ACC opponents= 9-9 overall). The Ranked Opp W-L record is tougher to predict as teams float in and out of the top 25 all the time, but 3-8 was my best guess given the same methods.

As you can see, a 9-9 Wake Forest team would be very much in consideration for a bubble spot compared to teams that have made the tournament in past years, but just barely. A couple things that will help the Deacs cause are 1) They likely will have played the toughest schedule of all the other teams on the bubble 2) Unless they lose to BC, Clemson, or VT (In which case, they probably aren’t on the bubble anyway) they will have no bad losses on the resume and 3) Wake will likely have 3-4 ranked wins on their resume by the end of the year.

All this being said, it is absolutely mandatory that Wake can get to .500 in the regular season if they want a solid shot at the NCAA tournament. There simply would be too many teams in the ACC ahead of them that would be considered first before I see the committee letting in a 8-10 10th place Wake team.

A 2-1 record in the ACC tournament is also vital, as a Quarterfinal exit might be deadly when other bubble teams are making deep runs in their own respective playoffs. In terms of 20 wins as being the benchmark for an at-large team, keep in mind only three bubble teams with sub-20 wins have gotten an At-Large bid in the last four years. However, the 2011 tournament featured 5 (!) teen-win programs. Given the tough non-conference schedule Wake might be able to sneak in with 19, but if the Deacs got to 20 I would say a bid is highly probable.

So what do you think of Wake’s upcoming schedule? Will Wake finish .500 in the ACC this season or above/below that figure? Would you be happy with an NIT appearance or is it NCAA or bust for you? Comment below with your thoughts. Needless to say, it will undoubtedly be a two-month roller-coaster ride for us all no matter what.

Follow me on Twitter @DeacFan3 and, as always, Go Deacs!