The Wake Forest basketball team is just over halfway through its non-conference schedule of 12 games (completed 7), and currently sits at a 3-4 record. Even the most negative of fans could not have possibly predicted four non-conference losses overall, much less through seven games, yet here we are.
Clearly the year is nearly on the verge of worst-case scenario, though the past two games have provided at least some shred of optimism that things could turn around a bit for the season.
The way I see it now is that the NCAA Tournament is quite frankly a pipe dream at this juncture. With the non-conference schedule full of teams ranked from 100-200 in KenPom there were not a lot of chances for a marquee win (although Tennessee may provide one shot in December), and most of the games were supposed to be relative cupcakes that would not tank the RPI come March.
Well we all know now that this schedule backfired a bit, as the Deacs lost three straight games to Georgia Southern, Liberty, and Drake to begin the year. The first two in Winston-Salem.
While there is always the chance that Wake could run the gamut in the non-conference to get back to 8-4 heading into conference play, and then win 10-11 conference games to get near the 20 win mark headed into the ACC Tournament, that is highly unlikely given what I have seen from the team so far, much less the strength of the ACC.
Even in a proclaimed “down year” for the conference it currently ranks 2nd in KenPom’s conference strength.
Am I happy with where Wake Forest is right now? Of course not, and who possibly could be?
Georgia Southern is a decent team and may be a reasonable loss at the end of the season, but the losses to Liberty and Drake are simply inexcusable and the team and coaching staff obviously has to accept responsibility for that.
That being said, I found myself enjoying the past two games a great bit more, not just because Wake won, but because I accepted Wake Forest for what it is, a flawed team that has to establish an identity and is learning how to do so following the losses of John Collins, Dinos Mitoglou, and Austin Arians.
Once I began focusing on watching guys develop, learning how to communicate, playing with a new sense of purpose, and beginning to establish certain roles, watching the team has become closer to enjoyable and less of a burden.
Now, what are my reasonable expectations for the rest of the year?
From a broad overview standpoint I would like to see the coaching staff continue to learn how to adapt to a variety of situations instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Every year is not going to provide the tools to run the perfect offense and defense that the staff may want to, and that’s where it must learn how to improvise and overcome certain shortcomings with better strategies.
The zone defense against Illinois was a great example of this. The Illini came out red hot from behind the arc (a lot of that has to do with our continued poor perimeter defense), and the staff switched to a matchup 2-3 zone that basically won the game.
While Illinois did manage to hit on a lot of its three-point attempts, it was a strategic move that Brad Underwood clearly did not see coming, and that caused a team that is reliant on driving to the lane, drawing fouls, and getting to the basket to stall out and chuck threes all game.
On offense I think there have been some reasonable sets, but given the strength of Doral Moore inside (shooting 84% from 2’s on the season), he simply has to get the basketball more. He has been posting up, making cuts to the basket, and sealing his man off all year, but for some reason he isn’t getting the ball nearly enough. This has to be a main focus in the next few games to maximize the efficiency of the offense.
There is also the question of what Wake is getting out of the power forward position. Terrence Thompson was a great addition to the team to fill a hole after Mitoglou left, but it doesn’t take a basketball savant to see that he is limited, particularly on the offensive end. He rebounds missed shots quite well and plays fine defense, but he misses a lot of easy layups, and isn’t really a guy who can run the pick-and-roll very well.
Melo Eggleston, Olivier Sarr, and Donovan Mitchell have looked pretty good in limited minutes and I believe there is a long-term plan to getting all of them more involved this season. Perhaps Mitchell more than Eggleston for the short-term at the SF-PF spot, but I think both have displayed enough talent to show that they are worthy of increased minutes moving forward.
If we are looking at setting a new goal for the season based on where things currently stand, I think an NIT berth would be good, albeit a lofty goal.
Since the NCAA Tournament is a long shot, the next step down is to try to make the postseason and get the extra practices and games that come along with it.
Since there is a really good recruiting class coming in next year, and NIT berth would help keep up some of the momentum from last year and doesn’t completely waste the improvements of the basketball program.
To make the NIT I think the Deacs need to get to at least 17 wins, which means going 14-9 the rest of the way headed into the ACC Tournament (17-13).
Based on the play thus far, this is no small task and the Deacs will have to continue to improve by ACC play to get to that point.
The final five non-conference games (Richmond, Charlotte, Army, Coastal Carolina, and Tennesse) have a win expectancy of roughly 3 games (nearly 4), and I think winning four games is what is needed to finish the non-conference and consider it a success (from here, clearly not from the start of the season).
This means Wake would need to go 10-8 in the ACC to get to 17 wins, which is probably a long shot at this point too, but I think a reasonable optimistic goal, even if it is maybe a bit too optimistic.
All in all, while the goal of making the NCAA Tournament is likely a bust, there are still a lot of things that Wake Forest can work on and develop that will be moderately enjoyable for the fans to watch that are interested.
From a fan’s perspective, a new goal of the NIT and the realization that although this team is not anywhere near where we want it to be, but instead a continual work in progress should provide for a better outlook.
I don’t want anybody to mistake this article for shooting sunshine towards the fan base because I am as frustrated as anybody. I thought going into the year Wake had a pretty good shot at making the NCAA Tournament, but I also underestimated the losses of the aforementioned players and the lack of capable players that we had to step up off of the bat.
Primarily I wanted to take a step back and reassess what Wake has done so far and what realistic goals are for this team for the rest of the season so I don’t drive myself crazy with the “what-ifs” and “why aren’t/weren’t we better than this”? Both of which are questions that can be looked at towards the end of the season.