Regard

There was a stretch there about 15 or so years ago when I was the envy of every beat guy in the ACC footprint.

From Syracuse down to Miami, I’d run into sportswriters who couldn’t believe how good I had it. In football season, I got to work with Jim Grobe, in basketball Skip Prosser.

Besides being smart men really good at what they did, there was another quality that set them apart from the rank-and-file coaches plying their trade in the ACC. Both Jim and Skip had a huge regard for the people they were around. They made sure they knew your name. They made you feel like you were somebody.

I can’t remember ever walking away from either Jim or Skip without a smile on my face, and another story to tell my friends.

And what would turn my sports writing brothers and sisters an even deeper shade of green was to remind them that before Skip came along in 2001, I had the unparalleled pleasure of covering Dave Odom for a dozen unforgettable seasons.

If there was ever a better basketball coach to deal with than Dave Odom, I didn’t come across them in my 45 years of chasing that bouncing ball.

And it wasn’t just that Dave, Skip and Jim would all allow me to attend practices in a time that most practices from Syracuse to Miami were shuttered and locked down. Not only was I invited, I was made most welcome. If I’d miss a day or two, they’d wonder where the hell I’d been.

And because of this arrangement I got to know Dave, Skip and Jim. Beyond that, I got to know their assistant coaches and their staff right on down to the managers.

Most important, I got to know their players.

To my mind, I never wrote better because I had so much to write. And I have to think that the real winners were the readers of the Winston-Salem Journal, as well as the football and basketball programs at Wake.

I always thought it was such a sensible approach at Wake, a small private school wedged in the shadow of larger and more prominent institutions that was always struggling for oxygen on the sports pages and sports casts from the Triad to the Triangle.

Which is why I once asked Ron Wellman, Wake’s director of athletics, if a coach’s ability to relate to the media and the fans was taken into account when he went searching for someone to lead his football and basketball programs.

“It’s not the first consideration,’’ Wellman replied. “The first consideration is that we find a coach who can win.

“But it is a consideration.’’

Watching Wake once again assume the fetal position at Florida State last night – while giving up baskets on 21 of the Seminoles’ final 29 possessions to get undressed 88-66 – reminded me for not the first time how right a man can be at one stage of his tenure and how wrong at another.

In his last two cracks at hiring a basketball coach, Wellman landed coaches who whiffed so wildly on both of his criteria. Neither Jeff Bzdelik nor Danny Manning could/can win, and neither showed any real regard for those around them.

The difference is I got to know Jeff, and actually got to like him. His inability to connect with the media and the fans, in my mind, had more to do with his innate awkwardness and conspicuous lack of social skills. But we had a number of really pleasant one-on-one conversations, particularly when talking about such subjects as music and family.

I wish I could say I got to know Danny in the three seasons I covered him, but, alas, I can’t. And in talking with others around the department, I’m convinced the problem was not mine.

The best word I can use to describe Danny Manning is private. I could go with aloof, or remote, or maybe even standoffish. But what I read most is indifference. He comes across as indifferent to the wants and needs of those around him.

The day he arrived he pulled the shutters down around his program and made it as clear as a sunny Valentine’s Day that there was a line that was not to be crossed.

Now don’t get me wrong. Dave and Jim and Skip had their lines that were not to be crossed as well. But theirs seemed to be established for the good of their programs while Danny’s line seems to be for the good of Danny Manning.

Most of you folks reading this are fans of Wake. You tell me. Do you feel any connection with Danny Manning, anything close to the connection you felt with Skip or Jim or Dave?

The results, as I see them, are at least three-fold.

The coverage of Wake is not as good as it was in my day. That’s not to say that today’s beat guys, Conor O’Neill of the Journal and Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest, aren’t as good at what they do as I was. It’s just that they’ve not been given the same chance to cover Wake basketball that I was during my heyday.

The atmosphere at home games at Joel Coliseum is not anywhere near as festive, raucous and lively as it used to be. The crowds have actually been surprisingly generous for a program in such dire straits, but people who go regularly tell me there’s no real enthusiasm or energy in the place.

And if Danny had the ability to connect with people, do you really think the revolving door would be spinning from recruits leaving the program with eligibility remaining?

I burst out laughing every time I hear the default excuse of how Manning’s fifth team at Wake is so young – and that’s why the Deacons are currently 2-9 and sinking fast through the ACC standings. Well when eight of the first ten players you recruit either bail or get kicked off the team, well yeah, you’re going to be young.

In his five seasons as Wake, Danny has coached one senior that he recruited as a freshman, that being Mitchell Wilbekin. If he sticks around to play for his father, Randolph, Brandon Childress next season will be the second.

No one can blame Danny for John Collins leaving for NBA stardom after his sophomore year. I’ll give him that. And the argument can also be made that Dinos Mitoglou did all right for himself by returning to Greece to play pro ball after his junior season.

But that hardly explains the spinning turnstile of Cornelius Hudson, Doral Moore, Bryant Crawford, Donovan Mitchell, Samuel Japhet-Mathias and Rich Washington. Nor does it even take into account Melo Eggleston, a member of the 2018 class who left after one season, or Jamie Lewis, a 2019 recruit already gone.

Mike Brey is a coach so many ACC sportswriters got to know back in the day he was an assistant at Duke, and the universal opinion is that Mike is a good guy. He’s struggling this season, his 19th as head coach at Notre Dame. But in watching the Irish beat Georgia Tech 69-59 Sunday night, I was struck by how the two announcers calling the game, Anish Shroff and Cory Alexander, couldn’t say enough good things about Mike Brey – no matter how hard they tried.

They went on and on about how Mike had pulled struggling T.J. Gibbs aside for some personal time shooting baskets together in the gym in an effort to get Gibbs back on stride. They had all these wonderful things to say about a coach who entered the game with a 2-8 record.

You just know that when Anish and Cory showed up at South Bend, that Mike welcomed them with open arms and showed them the kind of regard he shows everybody. He made them feel like somebody. I can remember what a good feeling that is.

Notre Dame, like Wake, is going to be good in basketball only if it can recruit the right players and keep them around long enough for them to develop into top-tier ACC talent. And in the five years Danny Manning has coached one senior he recruited as a freshman, Mike Brey has coached four – Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Martinas Geben and Rex Pflueger, all of whom got inexorably better during their careers at Notre Dame.

That’s not even counting Nikolo Djogo, a red-shirt junior who, like Pflueger, is in his fourth season in the program.

None of us should ever forget the Grand Caveat of Coaching. The coach who wins often enough can do no wrong and the coach who loses often enough can do no right. But when you’re at Wake, and even Notre Dame, you’re not going to win enough every season. No coach ever has.

That’s why it’s so important for the Wakes and Notre Dames of the sporting world to find a coach who can connect with the fans, the players and the media, the guy with a capacity to show regard for someone besides themselves.

The time will come when either Wellman or his replacement will be on the market looking for a new basketball coach.

If it is indeed Wellman, do you think he will remember a lesson once learned but forgotten? For the sake of the fans, for Conor O’Neill and Les Johns and for the players who sign at Wake hoping to play not just in the ACC but in the NCAA Tournament as well, I can only hope so.

Regard. It’s an important word in life. Those who show it benefit and thrive, those who don’t suffer the consequences of a world of one.

Living the Dream of Wall-to-Wall ACC Basketball

A problem with covering ACC basketball for a living is you don’t get to see all the ACC basketball you want to see.

The paradox has to do with the time required to cover an ACC basketball game. While others are watching all those great games on television, the beat guy is getting to his assigned game, preparing for the game, watching the game, and then conducting the interviews and gathering the material required to write about it.

So often I’d leave the hacienda at 9:30 for a noon home game, and when all was said and done, come dragging back in around dinner time. And if the game was on the road – say in Charlottesville or Atlanta or Tallahassee or Boston — then my entire weekend would be consumed with the logistics of getting there, covering the game and getting home.

To find out what transpired elsewhere in the footprint, I’d have to rely on reading the accounts written by others, or talking to friends fortunate enough to see the games.

All of which is why I’ve never watched as much ACC basketball as I have since retiring from the Winston-Salem Journal 18 months ago. That’s also why I’m loving pretty much every minute of it, especially on days such as we had this past Saturday.

I climb out of bed warning my bride Tybee that it’s going to be wall-to-wall basketball. How she puts up with me, I’ll never know.

Nor will I cease to be ever grateful.

But what a slice of heaven this past Saturday proved to be, watching ACC basketball from the tip of North Carolina’s noon game against Miami to the conclusion of Duke’s at Virginia at around 8. Retirement truly has its rewards.

Having spent my career in Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem, I’m drawn more to the Big Four schools. And on this occasion, I was actually happy that Wake had the day off. The Deacons of this day and time, sadly, are rarely worth watching.

But the three Big-Four games played Saturday were classics, with the Tar Heels outlasting in overtime an inspired Hurricanes team playing out of its mind, the Wolfpack gutting out a game at Pitt it absolutely could not afford to lose and the Blue Devils hitting enough 3-pointers to hold off the Hoos in what I always considered the ACC’s most fabulous show place, John Paul Jones Arena.

My only real chore of the day was figuring out what window to run out and procure dinner from a near-by restaurant. I chose the first half of the four o’clock Louisville at Florida State tilt and got back (with take-out lasagna in tow) in plenty of time to see the second half and overtime of the Seminoles’ hard-fought victory over Chris Mack’s high-flying Cardinals.

Conclusions drawn from this wall-to-wall ACC basketball were four-fold.

With Coby White playing like a 6-5 Phil Ford, the Tar Heels are one team no one wants to face come NCAA Tournament time.

State still appears to be running on fumes, though one has to give Jeff Capel and the Panthers plenty of credit for giving the Pack all it could handle.

The Duke freshmen, particularly R.J. Barrett, were highly inspired and motivated by the front-row presence of LeBron James and (to a lesser-degree) Rajon Rondo and wanted to give those guys a sneak peek of what to expect in the NBA come next season.

The best play-by-play/color man combo calling ACC basketball these days, by far, is that of Evan Lepler and Dave Odom.

Here’s where I admit I’m not the most objective critic to be found. Both Evan and Dave are good friends.

I’ve known Dave well since he became Wake’s head basketball coach in 1989 and he always treated me the way any beat guy would love to be treated. And I’ve known Evan since his under-graduate days at Wake going on 15 years ago, and have followed his career with great interest.

It’s been really cool this season to see Evan getting more and more high-profile games. He’s earned those opportunities, and, to my mind, he continues to make the most of them. He’s a bright guy quick to learn, and you can just sense him gaining confidence and polish with every game he calls.

I expect Evan Lepler to be on the ACC scene for years to come, and all of us ACC fans will continue to be all the more fortunate for it.

And Dave Odom has forgotten more basketball than most of us will ever know. He’s also the ultimate people-person, and his love and appreciation for the game he devoted a life to comes across so loud and so clear.

Dave, like Evan, is a bright guy quick to learn. And Dave’s great challenge as a commentator was not in knowing what to say, but learning when to not say anything.

Anyone who knows Dave knows he’s a talker. Any sportswriter who was ever around during Dave’s time will recount the time Dave took 10 minutes to answer a question that another coach would have dispensed with in 15 seconds.

And that’s why every sportswriter I ever met loved Dave Odom. He held us in high regard, and the feeling was mutual.

Dave is also a naturally funny guy prone to say things as only he can say him. To me, that’s a plus in this new pursuit of him.

There’s a natural rhythm in every good play-by-play/color man team, and Dave, as he gains experience, is learning not to step on the comments of his teammate. But I also noticed a natural rapport between Evan and Dave, which warms the heart of a good friend of both.

Like when Dave observed player taking a flop in an attempt to draw a charge and giving up a basket.

Odom: “A lingering question with contact is when do you fall back and give up a shot – not that time.’’

To which Evan responded: “And that’s a question that will linger forever.’’

But my favorite moment of the whole day was a line by Dave that had me laughing out loud. Now Dave is an old-school guy. So I was hardly surprised to find he’s not a fan of the infestation of the Euro-step in modern basketball – which would have been called walking during Dave’s days of coaching high school basketball in Goldsboro and Durham and would still be today if called correctly.

“That Euro-step all these guys are working on – that needs to be left in Europe.’’

What could be better than watching ACC basketball with two great friends like Evan Lepler and Dave Odom? If I find out, I’ll let you know.

But don’t expect an answer anytime soon.

Gordianus The Finder

Besides being one of the most influential figures in the history of baseball, Bill Veeck was also one of the most fascinating.

Want a great read? Find, if you can, a copy of Veeck As in Wreck and dive in. There’s very little being done to promote the game of baseball that didn’t spring from the twisted, but oh so fertile and clever mind of one William Louis Veeck, Jr.

BV, or Before Veeck, the game and those who ran it took itself and themselves way too seriously. It needed a good goosing, and nobody was more up to the task than Veeck.

“I try not to break the rules,’’ Veeck once explained, “but merely test their elasticity.’’

One great regret is that I never met him. I know he was full of himself, and that enemies who described him as a huckster and a gadfly weren’t entirely wrong. But anybody who loses a leg fighting as a Marine in the South Pacific, and then carves an ashtray out of his wooden prosthetic to snuff his cigarettes in is OK by me.

He dropped out of Kenyon College when his father – a sportswriter hired as general manager of the Chicago Cubs – came down with leukemia, the same scourge that did in my own mother. But he never lost his love for the written word.

When he’d come across an author who caught his attention, he would do his diligence and read the writer’s output in the chronological order that it was written. He wanted to see what evolution, or perhaps devolution, the author had experienced and soak in everything that had been offered.

I’m drawn to Veeck for at least three reasons – his love of baseball, his love of the written word, and his love of stirring up the established order in the pursuit of pure unadulterated fun.

My own taste in literature runs toward historical fiction. I love reading those books where if you’re not careful you might learn something worth learning.

Favorites are Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Edward Rutherfurd and Ken Follett. If ever tortured to the point I’d have to name my favorite historical fiction work of all time, I’d probably scream out Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.

Whoever thought a tale about building a cathedral in 12th Century Britain could be so spell-binding?

But a writer who, in my mind, is giving them all a run for their money is one I came across a couple of years back named Steven Saylor. He writes about a period I find infinitely engrossing, Roman history in the final century BC, the time of Sulla, Cicero, Spartacus, Pompey and, of course the great one himself, Julius Caesar.

His hero is a Roman citizen named Gordianus the Finder, who over past couple of years has become one of my all-time favorite literary characters. If there’s anyone reading this who has any say in the development of television or cinematic entertainment, I’m going to give you the best advice of your career.

Take the character Gordianus the Finder and make a series out of him. You’d be rich and famous and I’d be happy and grateful to have something good to watch.

Gordianus was called The Finder because his powers of deduction were so uncanny that he – and ostensibly only he – could unlock the deepest, darkest secrets of the deep and dark Roman Empire. And everyone knew it, so they would hire him to glean the kind of information that could make a society rumble and an empire crumble.

He was, in short, a PI, a Private Investigator centuries before the term was coined.

So the series would have that element, and even those who have little interest in Roman history would have trouble resisting a good mystery. And Saylor, besides having researched his history to infinite detail, also writes a good mystery.

Best I can tell, Saylor has trotted out 16 tales of Gordianus The Finder so far in a series titled Roma Sub Rosa. In Latin, a matter deemed Sub Rosa meant it was confidential.

Unless I’m mistaken I’ve read six of the 16 Gordianus the Finder. Every one has been a page-turner.

Only I never read them in any particular order, just whenever I could find one on the shelves of a local library or second-hand book store. So by the closing chapters of The Judgment of Caesar, which I polished off over the holidays, I decided to take a Veeckian approach to the series and read them in order.

By The Judgment of Caesar, Gordianus was an old man riddled by the aches and pains and frustrations that I, at 66, know all too well. I could relate.

But it’s been fun starting back at the start, with The Seven Wonders, when Gordianus is a fresh-faced whippersnapper of 18 years old who had just donned his toga signifying adulthood. He travels the ancient world with a celebrated poet gone incognito named Antipeter of Sidon solving mysteries from Ephesus to Rhodes to Olympia to Babylon to Memphis.

I’ve already checked the local library’s catalog to find that most of the books are in one branch or another. And here in Winston-Salem, those running the library are great about transferring a book from a far-away branch to one much closer.

Another trick I’ve learned is to buy a book used on-line and have it sent to your house. You can usually find a decent copy for less than 10 dollars, postage included.

The Seven Wonders closes in Egypt where Gordianus finds and buys the love of his life, a slave named Bethesda. So obviously he remains there for the second book of the series Raiders of the Nile, which I’ve yet to read but am looking forward to with great anticipation.

What I’ve found is retirement is boring only to those who allow it to be.

Cardinals “Embarrass” Deacons

Embarrassed was a word we learned to tread carefully around, those of us who wrote sports for the Winston-Salem Journal while Terry Oberle was our editor.

Every time the word showed up in our copy, Terry would strike it out.

“To say a person was embarrassed assumes you know what they were thinking,’’ he explained. “You can’t assume you know what someone is thinking.’’

“But Terry,’’ we’d sputter, “they just got annihilated at home by the the worst team in the league. They were never in the game. The fans were booing. Even the cheerleaders were holding their noses. Of course they were embarrassed.’’

“I’m not saying they shouldn’t be embarrassed,’’ Terry would saying, sticking to his guns as he was known to do. “I would be embarrassed. You would be embarrassed. But that said, you still can’t assume you know what’s in someone else’s mind.’’

So bless Jaylen Hoard’s heart last night after Wake’s 82-54 blood-letting at the hands of Louisville. He came right out and said what everyone knew to be true.

“Obviously we lost – it was embarrassing,’’ Hoard said. “It was just an embarrassing loss.’’

There’s so little I find worth watching on television these days that I was chagrined to find out that Wake would be playing at the same time as the season finale of The Vikings. I’m a sucker for history – especially early British history for some reason — so I’ve really gotten into the tale of Ragnar Lothbrook and his sons on the History Channel.

It can get pretty gory at times, but nothing I saw when I watched the repeat at midnight matched the carnage I witnessed from Joel Coliseum. The Cardinals made the return of Chris Mack and Dino Gaudio one to long remember by scoring on 28 of the first 42 times they had the ball en route to a 64-29 lead.

You read that right. The Cardinals, picked to finish 11th in the ACC and playing for a first-year coach, led 64-29.

If Danny Manning was embarrassed by his team’s performance, he did his usual superb job of hiding it. Of course he’s had plenty of practice over his 147 games (62 wins and 85 losses) as Wake’s head coach.

He even kept his cool while fumbling with the microphones in front of him as he sat down to address the assembled media. The questions, you’ve probably noticed, have gotten sharper as the losses have mounted, as should be the case given the Deacons’ 1-7 record in ACC play.

But there was nothing Manning said that we haven’t heard so many times before.

We heard how the Deacons have to win each possession.

We heard how Manning played 15 years in the NBA, despite blowing out his knee three times.

And we heard how Wake has a young team. In fact, we heard the word young five different times. Young team. Young group. Young this. Young that.

I don’t know about you. But to me this stuff about how Wake is a young team has long since gotten old. There are plenty of young teams in this day of the fly-by-night player who are faring far better than the trainwreck know as Wake basketball.

Manning came up with a new spin last night, how his senior class is playing professional basketball. That’s a deft way of saying it, considering only one of them, John Collins, is living his dream of playing in the NBA.

Another, Doral Moore, is playing in the G-League, and yet another, Bryant Crawford, is playing in Egypt. Both chose highly uncertain prospects over another season of playing college ball for Danny Manning.

What Manning didn’t mention, mind you, were the six other players he and his staff recruited – Donovan Mitchell, Melo Eggleston, Rich Washington, Jamie Lewis, Samuel Japhet-Mathias and Keyshawn Woods – who would be on the roster if they hadn’t either transferred or been dismissed.

The best question, to my mind, was asked by Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest concerning what Manning himself might do to get the team on track down the stretch.

“Yeah I’ve got to continue to – I’ve got to do a better job,’’ Manning said. “I think we all have to do a better job. It’s not – it’s everybody. Obviously I’m the head coach and it starts with me.’’

If he had stopped there, I wouldn’t have been as bothered as I shortly thereafter. What I heard next sounded mighty close to “Don’t blame me. Blame the players.’’

“But when we go into the games, we have an understanding of what the teams are going to do,’’ Manning said. “We just have to go out there and do a better job of executing it.’’

Sitting on the opposite bench were two coaches – head coach Mack and assistant coach Gaudio – I had the pleasure of getting to know fairly well during their times at Wake. It was good to see Dino back in the game after sitting out the eight seasons following his dismissal as the Deacons’ head coach..

I thought Dino handled the build-up to his return to Joel Coliseum well when Conor O’Neil caught up with him for the advance story. He took the high road, and came off looking all the better for it.

That said, I know there had to be some satisfaction for Dino to know what one person in the stands was suffering through as the Cardinals ran the Deacons out of their own building. That, of course, would be Ron Wellman, the director of athletics who extended Gaudio’s contract in the fall of 2009 and fired him in the spring of 2010.

Wellman never sufficiently explained the dismissal, leaving one to assume that Gaudio’s 61-31 record at Wake wasn’t good enough.

Sorry Terry. There I go assuming again.

The Burned-Out Husk That is Wake Hoops

So as we could see again from last night’s first-round knockout at Virginia, all Danny Manning needed was five years to assemble a Wake team this bad.

Does rock bottom have a trap door? We’re getting ready to find out with Saturday’s visit from Boston College.

What we know already is that Manning’s fifth team at Wake is his worst. We know that from the KenPom rankings and we know that from the naked eye. Back-to-back blowouts at Virginia Tech (87-71) and Virginia (68-45) have dropped the Deacons to 8-10 overall and 1-5 in ACC play, with little to no relief in sight.

Last night’s fiasco reminded me all too well of a lost weekend spent in Atlanta in Jan. of 2013, in the third season of Jeff Bzdelik’s ill-fated four-year run. I drove down on Friday, got a room and made it to McCamish Pavillion well before the 3 p.m. tip.

As it turned out, I could have packed my computer and headed back up I-85 at the first media timeout without missing anything worth watching. Georgia Tech scored the game’s first 16 points and that was that. The final carnage was Yellow Jackets 82, Deacons 62.

So I had to feel empathy last night for my buddy Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest, as well as Stan Cotten and Mark Freidinger of the IMG Broadcast team. They drove up I-29 yesterday, had to get a room because of the 9 p.m. tip, and drove back today.

And for all that bother and effort, the game was over by the first media timeout. The Cavaliers led 17-3 and again, that was that. Virginia extended its lead to 25-3 and the Deacons never got closer than 14.

I read somewhere recently where legendary reporter Bob Woodward, he of Watergate fame, expressed gratitude he didn’t have to cover another scandal like the Russia probe. Eighteen months into my blissful retirement, I’m thanking my lucky stars I no longer have to cover the burned-out husk that is Wake basketball.

For as much empathy as I have for Les, Stan and Dinger, I have all that much more sympathy for the fans who have tried somehow to remain faithful to the once-proud Deacons basketball program. Let’s just say their faith is stronger than mine.

I keep hearing that Manning is a good man. You’d think I might have an idea one way or the other, having covered him for his first three seasons. But truth be told, I never knew him well enough to find out.

Danny being Danny, I never got the chance.

But I have to say I was bothered by his comments after the drubbing at Virginia Tech.

First he clearly threw Ikenna Smart, the grad student transfer from Buffalo, under the bus the Deacons drove to Blacksburg for the beat down.

“He wasn’t feeling good the last day or so,’’ Manning explained. “I reflected back on playing 15 years in the NBA and there were a lot of days I went to the gym and didn’t think I was going to play – and ended up getting into your routine and feeling good and going out there and playing.

“I was hoping for that – to be honest with you – when we got on the bus coming to the game, that he was going to find a way to give us a minute.’’

And then he implied strongly that Wake got a raw deal by the officials after Mike Eades was sidelined early with a knee injury.

“Today’s game was a lot different with the dynamics of the referees,’’ Manning said. “We only had two out there. So you know that’s going to change some of the things in terms of that last set of eyes out there and calling some different things.’’

Listen, in 45 years as a sportswriter I never met a coach who didn’t feel in his heart of hearts that he got shafted by the officials from time to time – if not all the time.

But Wake, a team that couldn’t beat Houston Baptist or Gardner-Webb at home, went into last night’s game having scored a larger percentage of its points from the free- throw line than any team in the country. More to the point, Manning had all that to say after the Deacons shot 38 free throws on the road against the ninth-ranked team in the country.

The other attribute I’ve heard about Manning is that he is a good recruiter. And that, to me, is a fallacy.

Good recruiters recruit players good enough to win games, and Manning’s record at Wake is 62-83 overall and 21-57 in ACC play.

The tag “good recruiter’’ is often determined by the prep rankings of the players they recruit. I never quite understood that. To me, recruiting has always been a means to an end – which is to win games.

Jaylen Hoard is a nice player who will be playing basketball for many years. But he’s a freshman in need of muscle and polish still feeling his way through the rigors of major-college basketball, as we’ve seen so painfully in the last two games. On the swing through Virginia, Hoard made 4-of-15 shots from the floor while averaging 6.5 points and 6.5 rebounds.

Sharone Wright, Jr., and Isaiah Mucius also appear to have talent, and may someday develop into decent ACC players. But ask yourself, could either crack the rotation of any ACC team with NCAA Tournament aspirations?

Besides, the term recruiting has taken on a much different connotation in this day of fly-by-night players. There’s a booming market for transfers and grad students, one that coaches such as Kevin Keatts at N.C. State and Jim Larranaga of Miami have taken full advantage of.

When circumstances – such as a mass exodus of veteran players – have forced Manning out on the open market, who has he returned with?

Torry Johnson and Ikenna Smart.

Last night’s loss actually elevated Wake’s standing in the KenPom ratings, all the way up to No. 154. Manning’s previous worst team, his first in 2015, was ranked No. 120. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, but it will take some effort for the Deacons to reach their previous low-water mark under Manning.

It’s also worth noting that Wake has easily the lowest KenPom ranking in the ACC. Boston College is next, at No. 108.

So what is there left this season to look for. For me, it’s signs that Ron Wellman and the powers that be at Wake have recognized that Manning, like Bzdelik before him, is woefully over-matched as an ACC coach.

I know it. You know it. When will Ron Wellman know it?

And if he already does, what will he do about it? And when will he do it?

That’s not much to keep one’s interest in college basketball, but at Wake, that’s all you’ve got.

Down on NFL, Down on Myself

As down as I am on the NFL about now, I’m even more disappointed in myself.

See, if there’s anybody who knows that sports should be about enjoyment and fun and not frustration and angst, it should be one who spent a professional life writing about sports for a daily newspaper.

The best lesson for any sportswriter to learn is to not become emotionally invested in who wins or loses a game. You can be a fan or you can be a sportswriter, but you can’t be both if you want to do your job the way it should be done.

I’ve seen too many try, but in my eyes at least, they all failed.

But here I sit at age 66 all wound up about the way the NFC Championship between the Saints and the Rams came down. The taste is so sour in my mouth I’m not sure I can even tune in to the Super Bowl – not that anybody cares, or should care.

The big joke on me is that I’m not even all that into pro football. With each passing year as a sportswriter, I drifted further and further from those sports that I wasn’t directly responsible for covering, to the point that I rarely, these days, watch NFL until the playoffs begin.

If it’s every other year and the Panthers are on the prowl, then I might tune in. But invariably by the third time Cam Newton is called for delay of game my mind has wandered off to my music, some computer game or the two or three books I’m reading at any point in time.

But other than the Panthers, my favorite team is the Saints. I love the city, I love how the city has rallied around its team and I really love how Drew Brees and Sean Payton, et. al., rallied around the city after Katrina stomped through.

Plus they do gold and black better than any sports franchise I can think of.

So to see the Saints get so close to the Super Bowl, and to see how they were denied was such a bitter pill that now, even two days later, I’m having trouble choking it down.

Speaking of choking. . .

No, we’ll get to that later.

By now we’ve all seen the play and replays and heard all the commentary. The verdict is unanimous. The Saints got screwed. Even the perpetrator, Nickell Robey-Coleman, the cornerback who steamrolled receiver TommyLee Lewis, acknowledged that the Saints got screwed.

“Yes, I got there too early,’’ Robey-Coleman said. “I was beat, and I was trying to save the touchdown.’’

Of course that’s a bit like Bill Buckner admitting he botched the grounder in the 1986 World Series. Robey-Coleman is only telling everyone what everyone saw.

Everyone, apparently, except those who matter most – the officials responsible for making the call.

What’s mind-boggling is that replay should not have even been needed. We all saw what we saw. And when we did see the replay, the no-call was even more egregious — in that a strong case could be made that Robey-Coleman should have been called for helmet-to-helmet contact.

A distraught Peyton revealed his conversation with Al Riveron, the NFL’s vice president of officiating, and how Riveron admitted both penalties should have been called. But I have to say it bothers me to no end that the NFL has yet to officially address the issue.

And had they been called, the Saints have the ball inside the 10-yard line with 1:49 remaining. With only two timeouts remaining, the Rams would have had no way to prevent the Saints from running the clock almost out before attempting a short field goal to win the game.

Here’s where I admit that I was impressed with the Rams, and how they capitalized on their great fortune to take control in overtime. They’re a great team, and if they can beat the Patriots, they’ll be a great champion.

And I also freely acknowledge that there were other blown calls in the game. But seldom in my career have I seen a call or no-call so directly affect the outcome of a game.

My heart bleeds for the Saints and their awesome fans, the fans that simply wouldn’t let their team lose in the NFL semi-final against Philadelphia and who made life so miserable on the Rams. But to be charitable, I also feel sorry for the seven officials who called the game – and particularly the one (ostensibly either the back judge or the side judge) who was most responsible for making the call.

In their gut they have to know they they or he – and not Jared Goff or Drew Brees or Sean McVay or Sean Payton – were most responsible for extending the Rams’ season and, as Saints’ owner Gayle Benson put it, unfairly depriving one team from playing in the Super Bowl.

And that has to be a horrible feeling.

To date I’ve not seen the official or officials most responsible outed, and I’m glad for that. No need for lynch mobs, whether it be on social media or in public.

That said I really don’t see how the official or officials most responsible should ever call another NFL game. I know that’s harsh, in that we’re talking about people’s livelihood.

But to pursue a livelihood, one has to prove they’re up to the responsibility. And faced with that responsibility, at least one official and possibly two choked for all the world to see.

They can’t be counted on not choking again.

I wish I could say I felt a little better after getting all this off my chest, but in my mind, until the NFL improves its officiating it will remain a joke – a bad joke at that.

What I’d like to write is that I’ve evolved past the point where an outcome of an athletic event could get me so riled up.

But one no call in New Orleans clearly proved I’ve not.

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that in the modern game of college basketball there are only two reasons for a coach to play as much zone as Wake played in Tuesday night’s 71-67 victory over No. 17 N.C. State.

One is by design. Go the Syracuse route and recruit enough active, long-armed players to make the zone a real pain in the posterior to face.

The other is by necessity. Play zone because your man-to-man presents no more impediment than a busted turnstile on the Green Line.

Danny Manning, by lineage, is a man-to-man guy. He said so when he became head coach at Wake to the surprise of no one who knows his background at Kansas – one of college basketball’s most staunch man-to-man programs.

But desperate times call for desperate measures and Manning has seen the need for this, his fifth team at Wake, to be a zone team. Good for him. Something had to be done as the Deacons sunk ever lower in rankings of defensive efficiency and shooting percentages and point totals of the opponents continued to soar.

And if he can find a few more teams that attack the zone as poorly as N.C. State did in the first half last night, he might even win a handful of ACC games in this – again – his fifth season as the Deacons’ head coach.

I’ve been really impressed with what Kevin Keatts has done in his first two seasons as the Wolfpack’s coach. He’s one of many examples why it doesn’t always take three, four, or even five seasons to turn the fortunes of a program around.

But I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why he didn’t get more grips on his team in the first half last night when Wake packed its zone back and just dared N.C. State to heave it up from outside. Not until halftime – by which point the Pack had missed 13 out of 14 3-pointers to fall behind by as many as 22 points – did Keatts get his message across that the way to beat Wake is to take the ball to the hoop.

N.C. State took the ball to the hoop after the break and roared back into contention, scoring on 13 of the first 19 second-half possessions to tie the game at 58. If you were like me, you probably thought Wake’s goose was cooked. But to the Deacons’ considerable credit, they showed enough grit and fortitude to get six straight stops in winning time and make the plays needed to pull out their first ACC victory over.

Yeah, I know. Markell Johnson, probably the Pack’s best player, missed the game with a back injury. But my position is and has always been that you play with and against who is available. Once you start factoring in the impact of an injury you’ve entered the hazy, slippery realm of conjecture.

Say Johnson had been available, and was as bad against Wake as he was against North Carolina, when he 1-for-7 from 3-point range with five turnovers? We’ll never know, so it’s useless to speculate.

The team Danny Manning put on the floor beat the team that Kevin Keatts put on the floor, and that’s all that matters. And he did so by out-coaching Keatts. His strategy of playing a compacted zone worked.

And maybe you also noticed that with the Deacons clinging to a 67-66 lead, Manning called timeout and hustled Torry Johnson into the game for Sharone Wright, Jr., and that it was Johnson who not only sank the runner but also nailed the two free throws with 13 seconds left to all but clinch the victory.

Manning also showed flexibility on offense with a lineup that had freshman Jaylen Hoard essentially playing center for key stretches. Hoard was certainly up to the task, finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals for a stat line that would have done Josh Howard proud.

Danny Manning hasn’t had all that many good nights as head coach at Wake, but he had one last night. Good for him.

Now if he can just carry that momentum into the next two games at Virginia Tech on Saturday and at Virginia on Tuesday.

And maybe, just maybe, he can pack his zone back into the lane and tempt Buzz Williams and Tony Bennett to allow their teams to launch one brick after another from 3-point range.

If there’s another way Wake can escape falling to 1-5 going into the Jan. 26 home game against Boston College, perhaps you can see it.

Because I certainly can’t.