One can’t help but feel like this college basketball season has already been long. Elon’s 21-point opening-night lead in the first half, to only have Wake Forest come back and win; the wild, but unsettling losses to Georgia, Utah and LSU; the nine-game winning streak, highlighted by victories over the likes of Florida, Rutgers, Boston College and Miami; Efton Reid’s transfer waiver being granted. It’s hard to believe the date is only Jan. 10.
Perhaps that’s the reality for those who follow — or cover — teams like Wake Forest, a program that is on an upward trajectory, but still looking to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2017, and second in 15 years. The road is treacherous. Every win feels like a massive lift, every loss a gust of wind taken out of the sails. Such is life for so many in college basketball.
But, in reality, Wake Forest’s season is just beginning.
There is no doubt that the Demon Deacons’ early-season struggles will hurt to some degree. How much, we likely will not know until Selection Sunday in March. But, having Reid on the bench awaiting a decision from the NCAA, as well as three-point specialist Damari Monsanto being out with a still-lingering injury, hindered the team.
Equally as impactful was the surge of wins spanning from Nov. 24 to Saturday afternoon. In that time, Wake Forest’s KenPom rating rose from No. 78 to 42 — the Deacs dropped two spots following the loss to Florida State. In NET, which started tracking on Dec. 3, Wake Forest jumped from 133 to 47. The team now sits at No. 52.
Sure, those two stretches — both winning and losing — matter. But the road ahead is what makes a team dance in March.
The Deacons have completed just 20 percent of their conference schedule. 16 more games await. Many will have far more of an impact on the story of the 2023-24 season than any before.
In just a few days, an incredibly well-coached Virginia team will come to the Joel. Days later, Wake Forest travels across I-40 to play a highly-rated NC State. In a few weeks, there’s a stretch of North Carolina, Pitt and Syracuse back-to-back-to-back.
In the ensuing two months, Wake Forest will face Duke, NC State, Virginia and Pitt twice, all consistently strong teams. Add in the Tar Heels and Clemson, and the weight of this schedule grows even larger.
As NET currently projects, eight Quad 1 games remain for the Demon Deacons, along with three Quad 2’s. That is where the opportunity lies for Wake Forest. By no means do the Deacs have to win all of them, but strong performances against the best the ACC has to offer will do wonders for a team that currently hovers right on the bubble.
Take this with as much or as little worth as you desire, but NET has Wake Forest as a member of the “First Four Out” in its bracket projections, as does ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. Conversely, NCAA.com’s Andy Katz ranked the Demon Deacons as the No. 17 team in his Power 38 on Monday. ESPN’s Jay Bilas had Wake Forest at No. 23 in a Wednesday morning article, notably after the FSU loss.
The Bilas Index, Volume II. You’re welcome. https://t.co/jy7DK88ECe— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) January 10, 2024
This will all likely change in some way. At the end of the day, as head coach Steve Forbes has stated numerous times, just as much as his team’s future will be about victories and defeats, it will also balance on winning “the right games.”
On this date last year, Ohio State was No. 15 in NET, Texas A&M 83. By March 12, when CBS began putting teams on the board, it was the Aggies celebrating, with the Buckeyes not playing again. In total, six teams who were outside the projected field by NET on Jan. 10, 2023 played their way in.
And so, as the team, the fans and anyone else tied to the Deacs in some way moves ahead this season, I look back on a phrase I’ve brought up several times before: “Never Too High, Never Too Low.”
Wake Forest didn’t fall apart after the rough trips to Athens and Charleston. Now, it’s about not letting the same happen following Tuesday’s loss in Tallahassee. Road wins are hard to come by. Missing an opportunity cannot allow a derailment of the path charted thus far.
The same goes for the fans. As high as a nine-game winning streak can take someone, and as low as a tough loss can too, just know there’s much to come in the future. Just a few games, one way or another, can change everything.
On March 17, 2024, we will see where the chips fall. Until then, it’s college basketball, and we’re just getting started.