No Time Like Now to Get Better

Even while winning 240 games and two ACC championships in his 12 seasons as Wake’s head basketball coach, Dave Odom, being the human he is, was not infallible.

Odom made mistakes.

One he regretted almost from the time he made it was agreeing to take the Deacons to Hawaii over Christmas in 1999. That’s not to say Odom doesn’t like Hawaii. He loves Hawaii, so much so that since 2009 he has gladly served as chairman of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational Tournament.

Friends of Dave, including the one you’re reading now, kid him about having the greatest gig in the world. He gets paid to spend a couple of weeks every year in paradise with the lovely Lynn, his wife, while he “entices’’ friends he has known for years in the business to bring their teams to his tournament.

But his mistake of 1999 was not where he took his team, but when. The Maui Jim Maui is played over Thanksgiving, which, as Odom was to come to learn, is the only sensible time to take a team from North Carolina almost 5,000 miles to play a basketball tournament.

And he paid for that mistake dearly. The Deacons lost to Oregon and Villanova in Hawaii, and needed two overtimes to beat Ohio. Then, upon return, they lost the ACC opener to Florida State in Joel Coliseum, accelerating a tailspin that resulted in 12 losses over a disastrous 18-game stretch.

The shame of it all was that by the end of the season, when the Deacons were winning eight of their last nine, they might well have been one of best dozen or so teams in college basketball. But having played themselves out of the NCAA Tournament, they had to prove it by winning the NIT championship.

The two losses in Hawaii hurt the Deacons’ cause that season, but what probably hurt even worse was losing so much time Odom would have otherwise had to spend with his team in a gym back home. Odom, like all good coaches, recognized how invaluable that time can be.

By Christmas, a team has already had a spate of games to highlight their strengths and expose their weaknesses. They’ve also hopefully survived exams, so classes are done for the semester.

Odom would use that time like a drill sergeant uses boot camp, to grind his team into the kind of shape needed to survive the exacting 2 ½ month war soon to come.

One lesson we should always remember – even while we’re always seeming to forget it – is that nothing in life is static. Instead everything is dynamic – the definition of which is a process or system characterized by constant change.

It took me way too long as a sportswriter to learn the most inane two-word phrase in the English language is no way, as in there’s no way N.C. State could ever beat juggernaut Houston for the 1983 NCAA title, or there’s no way the Boston Red Sox, after losing the first three games, could beat the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS.

Or, closer to home, there’s no way that Wake can make post-season play in 2018 after beginning the season with home losses to Georgia Southern and Liberty followed by a losses in Lynchburg to Drake and Houston.

Already we can see the change in the Deacons from that early pratfall. We saw it Saturday in the 82-53 home thrashing of Richmond and we saw it last night in the 80-57 romp at Charlotte.

As for how much change we’ve seen, that would require figuring out just how bad two of the worst teams in the recent histories of Richmond and Charlotte basketball really are. But Wake did manage to lose to Liberty, which is currently No. 211 in the RPI, as well as Drake, currently No. 180.

So progress has clearly been made.

Looking closely, I’ve seen it most clearly on the defensive end. Last night the Deacons held Charlotte to 15 field goals for the whole game (on 47 heaves) while allowing the 49ers to score on just 11 of the 33 second-half possessions played before Danny Manning emptied his bench.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If the Deacons are going to do anything worth remembering this season, they’re going to have to improve defensively. Manning knows that. His assistants know that. And we can only hope that his players, by now, know it as well.

Wake will play Army this Friday at 7 at Joel Coliseum, then begin exams next week. Practices are sporadic during exam week, but all teams find some time for basketball. And after Army the Deacons won’t play for 10 days, until they travel to Conway to play Coastal Carolina on Dec. 18.

After they, they have five more days before playing Tennessee in Joel Coliseum on Dec. 23.

Can we expect the team that plays UT two days before Christmas to be better than the one that beat Charlotte last night? Manning and his staff will have the better part of three weeks to see that it is.

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