Wake Forest will kickoff the basketball regular season on Friday night when it hosts Georgia Southern in Winston-Salem at 7:30. This seems like the appropriate time to take a look at the season as a whole and what should be expected of it.
The Demon Deacons are ranked 57th in KenPom as we wrote a couple of weeks ago when those rankings came out. No games have been played yet, so this is based on returning production, expected value from freshmen, and how the offense and defense translate to this year.
Since we have a sample size of one game that has been played in the public eye, a 76-74 victory over No. 2 Division II Queens College last Friday, there are still a lot of questions that remain headed into the season opener.
While I do not want to get worked up over the close score of the game last week due to how difficult it is to judge an exhibition game with different rotations, substitutions, and gameplan, there were a few things that show me Wake could struggle in the early going. Particularly how to score efficiently on offense and especially at the 4 and 5 positions.
The biggest question mark heading into the season is how Wake Forest will handle the departure of not just 19th overall pick John Collins, but also Dinos Mitoglou and Austin Arians. The most obvious loss is Collins, but offensively Danny Manning will have to figure out a way to make up for the other two as well.
We got a glimpse of what will presumably be the starting lineup for at least the first part of the season with: Bryant Crawford, Keyshawn Woods, Chaundee Brown, Terrence Thompson, and Doral Moore. I would expect this to be the starting lineup on Friday against the Eagles.
The good news is that the defense should be a lot better, as Brown is a better defender than Arians, Thompson appears to be better than Mitoglou, and Moore is more a shot blocker inside than Collins was.
The bad news is that picking up the slack on offense could be difficult when you are relying on a freshman (no matter how good he is), an affectionately dubbed “garbage” man in Thompson, and a raw offensive player in Doral Moore to replace two absurdly efficient players on the offensive end in Collins and Arians.
There is no doubt that the backcourt of Wake Forest is the strength of the team. Crawford and Woods are going to have to bear the brunt of the scoring load this season, especially while the other three positions get figured out. I also believe that this team will have to rely a lot more defense in the early going than it did last year (which is to say even a modicum of reliance on defense this year would be nice) while everything gets sorted out.
Fortunately the non-conference schedule sets up nicely for a bit of tweaking and adjustment for the coaches and players. The Georgia Southern game on Friday is a tougher test than it may appear at face value (105th in KenPom), but after that it is a steady diet of “good, but not great” non-conference opponents.
Many have lamented the lack of difficulty with regards to the schedule that Wake put together, but while the names don’t jump off the page, the tests that the teams should provide will be very helpful for Wake Forest and it’s development headed into conference play.
The KenPom rankings for the non-conference teams are listed below:
105 Georgia Southern
161 UNC Greensboro
198 Coastal Carolina
This comes out to an average opponent of right around 149 for the non-conference schedule. Last year the average was 130th in final rankings for non-conference scheduling, so not that far off, and depending on who Wake plays in it’s in-season tournament (Colorado and Houston) it could get closer to last year.
The biggest difference in this year’s schedule from last year’s is the way it is constructed to get to the average of 150. Last year we saw a handful of top 50 or top 100 ranked teams (Villanova, Northwestern, Xavier, College of Charleston, Richmond, Bucknell), but also a handful of sub-200 ranked teams (Radford, UTEP, Coastal Carolina, Charlotte).
This year every single team except Drake (223) and Tennessee (43) is in the 100-200 range. What this means is that night in and night out Wake Forest will face off against more average teams than a great team on Monday and really bad team on Friday. This should give the staff a lot of time to tinker with lineups against decent opponents while everybody gets comfortable in the post John Collins era.
Despite being favored in every non-conference game, KenPom projects Wake Forest to go 8-2 in the games that are listed already due to win expectancy.
Regardless of who Wake plays in Paradise Jam (relocated to Lynchburg, VA) it will be favored. Assuming the Deacs defeat Drake, it will play the winner of the Quinnipiac-Colorado game, and then likely Houston in the Championship Game should it get there.
The Deacs would be roughly a 70-75% favorite over Colorado and a 55% favorite over Houston, so that adds another 1.25-1.30 wins to the expected total.
This means KenPom projects Wake to finish with around 9-10 wins in the non-conference portion of the schedule (10-2 or 9-3).
The ACC as a whole may be down a bit from last year due to early departures, NCAA violations, and injuries, but it’s still the ACC. Wake Forest will see 5 games against preseason top 25 KenPom teams, 8 game total against top 50 teams, and all but three against top 100 KenPom teams.
Here is the breakdown of the ACC schedule:
2x - Duke (6) , Syracuse (68) , N.C. State (109) , Georgia Tech (44)
Home - Virginia Tech (53), Virginia (9), Florida State (55), Clemson (47), Notre Dame (22)
Away - North Carolina (13), Boston College (95) , Louisville (16), Miami (27), Pittsburgh (121)
Wake faces off twice against the projected best team in the ACC, the 7th best team, the 12th best team, and the 14th best team.
Overall I think the schedule is fairly balanced for the Deacs and it should finish roughly in the middle of the in-conference SOS.
The good thing in my opinion is that Wake gets a lot of the toss-up games at home instead of on the road. Virginia Tech, Florida State, Clemson, Syracuse, and Georgia Tech are all teams similar rated to the Deacs and there are a total of 6 of those games at home.
Meanwhile Wake plays either good teams or bad teams on the road, which gives a reasonable chance at the “bad” teams on the road, and doesn’t hurt the win total because of having to play UNC in Winston.
KenPom projects Wake to finish 8-10 in conference play, so totaling that with the non-conference projections puts the Deacs around 18-19 wins headed into the ACC Tournament. Should Wake find itself in this situation it would likely need to win a couple of games in Brooklyn to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but that is heavily reliant on which teams the Deacs beat in the regular season.
My guess is that Wake takes a while to settle down in the early part of the schedule, and hopefully can get through it unscathed before at least the title game of the Paradise Jam. I do think the game on Friday night against Georgia Southern will be a good test Wake.
UNC-Greensboro, Illinois, and Richmond are the three games after the Paradise Jam, but while they are slightly bigger name teams, the odds of winning each game is still in the 80% range.
After surveying the schedule and looking at where the teams fall in the preseason KenPom projections, I think the projected win totals fall right in line with most Wake Forest fan’s guesses—which is between the 18-20 win mark.
Obviously these numbers could change drastically if Chaundee Brown or Olivier Sarr come in and exceed standard freshman production right off the bat. Brown will start from day one and be relied upon heavily at the 3 for a lot of minutes so he will get a chance immediately to show what he can do.
I believe Sarr will also contribute a lot as the year goes along, but he is a very raw player who has a lot to learn. His upside is absurdly high and ultimately I think he has the best chance on this current roster to be a first round draft pick in the coming years.
Overall I believe the goal is to make it back to the NCAA Tournament. There is no doubt that it will have to be done a bit differently than last year, when everything went through John Collins, but I think Bryant Crawford especially is ready to step up to the table and have a fantastic season.
I expect Crawford to “surprise” the ACC media, who continues to doubt him despite averaging 16 points and 5 assists with a 116 offensive efficiency and an impressive 25.8 possession rate. He should continue to get better and put up even better numbers in a higher usage role.
The big questions for me is who contributes at the 4-5 and whether or not the defense can improve to even a below average ACC defense. John Collins isn’t here anymore to put up absurd offensive numbers that help mask a horrific defense (176th nationally last year), so it will need to be a more balanced effort on both sides of the ball.
Ultimately the season will be determined through the development of the freshmen Brown and Sarr, and who can step in at the 5 and provide the minutes necessary on the inside. I think Moore and Sarr are both more than capable of doing this, but it will take some time to get there.
While the projections have Wake Forest around an 18-20 win team, I do feel like it would be a bit of a step back for the program if it cannot return to the NCAA Tournament. Whether that is fair or not given, what at this point, appears to be virtual coin-flip projection-wise for Wake to make it this season, these are the expectations that most Wake Forest fans have.
The goals are to compete every night against every team in the ACC, win ACC Tournament games, and win NCAA Tournament games.
The 2018 recruiting class is one of the best in school history, and if the Deacs can make the tournament this season then it means there are a lot of players on the team that will return for ‘18, which will be a very talented roster.
This will be a different looking team in 2017-18, but I believe the Deacs wind up eclipsing the 20 win mark and make it two straight NCAA appearances for the first time since 2009-10.