Eighteen games into Danny Manning’s fifth season as the Wake Forest head basketball coach, the Demon Deacons again find themselves mired in an undesirable yet wholly self-inflicted conundrum for a college basketball program. “Again” I say because this is nearly the identical position Wake found themselves during Jeff Bzdelik’s final season at the helm in 2014 prior to bringing Manning on board.
Just two years removed from an NCAA Tournament berth, Wake sits in the basement of the ACC standings with an embarrassing 8-10 overall record and 1-5 record in conference play. The past two games, a road swing through Virginia, revealed how far Wake truly is from competing night in and out in the difficult ACC as the Deacs took back-to-back beatings to the tune of two double digit losses. In neither of these games was Wake competitive - best exhibited by the Deac’s 25-3 deficit midway through the first half last night in Charlottesville - and watching the Hokies and Cavaliers obliterate Wake on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes a piece was painful for even the most ardent Deacon supporters.
For any Wake fan who still watches every game this is not particularly surprising as the team is not potent on either end of the court. In fact, at this point of the season the Deacs somehow have both the worst offense (133rd) and defense (195th) of the Manning era. While both sides of the ball show improvement from the depths of the Bzdelik-era, this hardly provides any respite for Deacon faithful given how poorly Wake performed in Bzdelik’s first two years when Wake finished the season ranked an abysmal 259th and 211th overall in KenPom (two of the worst ACC teams in the KenPom era, dating back to 2002).
Perhaps even more disappointing is how little it appears the team is improving as the year advances coupled with how far behind our ACC opponents Wake continues to fall. Yes, the Deacs staked out a large lead over a ranked NC State team last week and held on for the victory despite a furious second half Wolfpack rally, but this performance merely constitutes a blip on Wake’s overall downward trajectory in the 2018-19 season and indicates a clear-cut exception proving the rule that this team is not very good. While five different teams in the ACC have suffered only one loss in conference play, Wake already finds themselves four games off the pace in just six total games.
The true question at this juncture is where Ron Wellman and the Wake Forest basketball program are going in general. Wake has been wandering in the proverbial desert for nearly a decade since Wellman decided to can Dino Gaudio coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance with only a John Collins oasis providing a brief break from the program’s overall decade-long decline.
With rumors that Manning has an $18 million guaranteed contract required to extricate itself from his tenure following an extension after the 2017 NCAA Tournament appearance, the administration has neither the expendable finances nor the good will of the fan base to make a mistake when hiring a new coach for the 2019-20 season. And make no mistake - the Deacons must bite the bullet and fire Manning after this season. For as poor a coach as Bzdelik was, an individual who is forever enshrined in the Wake Hall of Shame, Manning’s record barely compares favorably.
Bzdelik finished his four years at Wake with an overall 51-76 (17-51 ACC) record and Manning is only slightly better at present with a 62-83 (21-57) record. Neither coach has been able to consistently break through in conference play, with the Deacs’ last winning ACC season coming in Dino’s final season. Combined, the two coaches are an embarrassing 38-108 in the ACC over the last nine seasons. For comparison, in the previous nine seasons under Gaudio and Skip Prosser, Wake went 79-65 in conference, which included only eight total conference wins in Prosser’s final two seasons.
With both Wake’s overall record and intra-season improvement in the gutter there is no reason to continue the Manning tenure at a time where a once proud fan base tunes in for games against ranked opponents with the primary goal of not witnessing an utterly embarrassing performance on the national stage.
Yes, the ACC is a difficult conference year-in and year-out, which only contributes to making Wellman’s decision at the end of the year a simple one: Wake can ill afford to blindly continue down its bleak path at a time where conference foes like Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Louisville, and Pittsburgh have hired good-to-great coaches, reaping nearly immediate dividends.
In fact, these hires serve to show how far off the mark Wake truly went in hiring Manning. Last season Pitt went winless in the ACC and finished the season ranked 234th in KenPom. Currently, the Panthers are a surprising 12-7 overall and sit at 66th overall - easily jumping the hapless Deacs who have stumbled 70 spots from the end of last season and sit last in the ACC at 154th in KenPom. Under Keatts, NC State has vaulted from 109th after the 2017 season to 31st this season with a second-consecutive NCAA bid on the near horizon.
The teams immediately around Wake in the KenPom rankings? Southern Illinois and Rider. You do not have to be a college basketball expert to realize that this performance is flat out unacceptable for any ACC team, much less a program like Wake Forest which is two years removed from an NCAA appearance and top 40 team, and only a decade removed from being the top-ranked team in the country.
I do not have all the answers as to who Wake should specifically hire after the season. I have ideas of what type of coach would be successful in Winston-Salem and believe that consistently-floated names like Nate Oats (Buffalo) or Wes Miller (UNCG) would get Wake headed in the correct direction. I do, however, know that after four and a half years under Manning that Wake has to change courses and again commit to winning on the national stage.
By all accounts Manning, a local legend, was a phenomenal basketball player and by most accounts is a stand-up individual, but in the rough and tumble world of college athletics, that is not enough. Wake should be better at basketball then they currently are and Manning has shown that he does not have what it takes to get the Deacs there. Wellman needs to admit he made a mistake, replace Manning at the end of the season (if not sooner), and start fresh with an entirely new staff.
I have always been a Wake fan who watches as many games as I can and I will continue to do so. However, in 2019, Wake athletics cannot continue to stand by the Deacons’ consistently poor performances and expect the fan base to provide the type of staunch support (and funding) an ACC program needs to succeed. It is an unfortunate reality of the college basketball world, but the time has come for Manning to exit stage left. It will be interesting to see if Wellman does what is right and pulls the trigger on a new coach for the basketball program.
Wake fans have suffered through nearly a decade of mediocre to downright terrible basketball seasons and Wellman owes it to the fanbase, as well as the school to try and right the ship. Do the right thing Mr. Wellman.
What do you think? Is it time for the Deacs to make a change and, if so, who should Wake pursue? Let us know below in the comments section and on Twitter. And as always, go Deacs.