We are just two games into the 2017-18 Wake Forest basketball season and many fans are (rightfully) asking for a re-do. The Deacs find itself 0-2 for the first time since 1979-80, and those losses were to N.C. State and Duke as opposed to Georgia Southern and Liberty.
As I touched on last night in the recap, it’s not just that the Deacs are losing to teams like Georgia Southern and Liberty, but it’s also the manner in which the team is managing to lose.
The shots aren’t falling, there is little to no on-ball defense, the desire and want to rebound is hauntingly lacking, and there is little resemblance of the offense that ranked top ten nationally just a season ago.
I mentioned on Twitter that I tried to sit down and write an article earlier this morning, but there were so many things that popped out to me as just plain deficient that it was hard to focus on what the main problems are.
In watching the game last night I was especially infuriated with what I perceived to be a lack of effort and intensity. While I still believe that the effort could be ramped up across the board, in reflecting this morning there are a lot of technical things that need to be improved upon as well if the Deacs are going to turnaround the season.
So what has to change for the Deacs to get better?
The two main areas that the team HAS to get better at in my opinion are defense and rebounding. The offense has it’s own problems to be sure, but there is enough firepower on the team to put up points when three-pointers and layups start to fall (which will even out a bit as the year goes along).
Defense has been a problem for Wake Forest since the day that Danny Manning set foot on campus. I am not blaming him solely for the woes that the Deacs have experienced, but it has simply been unacceptably poor, especially when going up against a team that has inferior athletes in Liberty and Georgia Southern.
Wake Forest ranked 108th defensively in the last year of [Name Redacted], and since then has regressed to: 125th, 128th, 176th, and are already at 151st this season despite starting the year at 96th.
This is despite recruiting more talented players across the board are irrefutably more athletic than who was here during the four lost years.
Manning promoted a “guard your damn man” mentality before the season began, but through two games I have yet to see anything remotely close to doing this consistently. This picks right up where the team left off last season, when it ranked 176th nationally on defense according to KenPom.
What are the biggest issues on defense though that have caused these woes? I would say on-ball defending at the perimeter by the guards, and the horrendous pick and roll defense in the two-man game.
On Ball Defending
On defense the guards continue to get blown by on the perimeter, which causes help defenders to have to sag off their men to assist. Liberty exploited this over and over again last night by driving to the middle of the floor, drawing defenders, kicking to the corner and knocking down threes. Or if the shot was missed it would rebound the ball and score an easy basket at that point due to the poor positioning.
When the secondary help comes from the wings, they are often times half-hearted, a step slow, and puts everybody out of position because the guard got beat. This isn’t just one guard either, but seemingly every guard that Wake has put out there over the past 2-3 years. There is no excuse for our scholarship players to have this much trouble guarding Liberty guards in a one-on-one situation that see these guys blow-by you over and over again.
This aspect of defense is not coaching, it’s simply a pride thing for the players. Get down low in a stance, get up on the ball handler, and commit to keeping him in front of you at all costs. I understand if you can’t keep Joel Berry or Frank Jackson in front of you, but spare me any defense for what we have seen against mid-major point guards getting into the lane with ease.
We saw last year John Collins pick up a lot of fouls because he had to try to come over and help clean up the mess that the guards left him. Doral Moore is more of a shot blocker than Collins is and he can help fix some problems, but this is not something that the team can continue to do to the big men.
Until our guards get into the mentality of stopping their man and winning the battle at the “point of attack” on the perimeter, the defense will not get better and it will simply continue to snowball as the Deacs face better competition. When these stops begin to happen on a consistent basis it will help clean up a lot of the defensive issues that are caused behind it.
Pick and Roll Defense
When it comes to pick-and-roll defense it’s really more of the same thing as the on-ball defending. Wake Forest usually tries to hedge the screen, with the big man floating out to momentarily guard the ball-handler before switching back.
Unfortunately, a lack of lateral foot speed from Wake bigs (this has also been an issue, even with John Collins last year), usually puts everybody out of position up top or results in a foul because of overly aggressive contact with the ball-handler.
When Liberty can exploit your inability to fundamentally defend the simplest of pick-and-rolls there are a lot of questions to be asked. Time after time last night we saw the pick and roll generate wide open looks from the corners because the defenders behind the two pick and roll defenders had to come help in the middle of court, leaving the wings wide open for threes.
In addition to the fundamental issues that Wake has playing basic pick and roll defense, I was also shocked at the number of times that our guards seemingly had no heads-up that a screen was coming. Multiple times Crawford ran into a man at around mid-court that was apparently either not called out, or poorly called out. Since I wasn’t at the game I cannot say for sure whether or not these screens were being vocalized, but calling out a screen is one of the first things that you learn on defense, so that is disheartening to even bring up as a potential problem.
The closeouts on those threes from the corner and the wings also leave a lot to be desired, as I would describe them as lackadaisical at best, and just plain “half-assed” at worst, which goes more to the amount of effort and intensity required to play Division I basketball at all times.
Wake Forest was out rebounded last night to the Liberty Flames by 11. This is absolutely pathetic given the height differential between the two teams. The tallest player for Liberty last night was Ezra Talbert at 6-8. He grabbed one rebound in 8 minutes. The second tallest player? Scottie James at 6-7. He managed to grab a whopping 14 rebounds (exactly half of Wake’s total of 28) in 22 minutes.
Wake Forest played Doral Moore (7-1), Olivier Sarr (7-0), Sunday Okeke (6-8), and Donovan Mitchell (6-8) a total of 36 minutes and they grabbed 11 rebounds to James 14 rebounds in 22 minutes.
Yes, Terrence Thompson at 6-7 grabbed 7 rebounds in 25 minutes and he is apparently the designated rebounder on the team, but those stats are mind-blowing.
Let’s cast aside the notion for a second that rebounding is primarily about effort and positioning, and take a look at what Wake is doing wrong from a technical standpoint.
On the rare occasion last night where Wake would play good defense throughout the shot clock and force a miss, it often times failed to secure the rebound that would “win” the possession. Liberty rebounded the ball 9 times offensively on 26 misses (32%). This is unacceptable for a Wake Forest team with that much of a height advantage.
Once again, this starts a lot with the defending at the perimeter that we discussed earlier. When guards are able to penetrate and a second/third/fourth guy has to come over to help, it pulls the rebounders away from the basket and where they cannot consistently be in the correct position.
On several plays more than one interior player would go for the block or to stop the drive, successfully altering the shot to the point of a miss, but leaving the backside player wide open for the putback.
This is part timing, part coaching, part discipline, and part reliance on your teammates to do what they are supposed to do, but there aren’t really any quick fixes for this either.
Until the guards stay on their man, the help defense rotates quicker to stop ball, the “help” for the helpers get to the wings to closeout on the shot, and the big men are able to stay inside to get correct positioning, then smaller teams are going to be able to rebound over us. It doesn’t matter how tall you are if you are 5 feet from the basket or you are allowing a Division I scholarship player to go up unimpeded for the rebound.
This should progress as the year goes on and the big men get used to playing with each other to know their strengths and weaknesses, but for the time being if the guys would simply “guard their damn man” it would once again clean up a lot of the issues.
The big men also have to learn how to box out more effectively. Two or three times the Deacs were right there and in the correct position defensively, only to not move the Liberty player out of the way with a proper box out to go up to secure the ball.
There were also a few more times that the Deacs were able to touch the ball, but unable to secure it because Liberty got a hand in there and simply overpowered the Demon Deacon rebounder. That is all positioning, working hard, and “want” to get the ball.
This article got longer than I wanted it to, and there are several other areas that I could write even longer articles on, primarily: the substitution patterns, the extremely poor play of the backup guards (for the love of god stop the four-guard lineups), the lack of players that Wake has inside in general to fill the 80 minutes (which is probably why the four-guard lineups won’t stop any time soon), and the selfish play of the offense that results in long-twos, turnovers, and poor offensive possessions.
All in all there are a lot of things that Wake Forest needs to fix before it becomes even a mediocre basketball team at the level of competition that it is currently playing against, much less against ACC competition.
John Collins and Dinos Mitoglou aren’t coming back to help grab rebounds and defend in the paint, so the guys better strap up and take it on themselves to be that guy or the floggings will continue.
The main two things that need to improve immediately are defense and rebounding, and those start with individual accountability, pride, motivation, and discipline, all of which are sorely lacking through two games of the season.