The Free Throw: Basketball’s Conundrum

There is more than enough to the game of basketball to drive a coach over the edge of sanity. Not being a basketball coach, I’d have to guess what might be the quickest to do the trick.

But my best bet would be the ability – or more to the point, the inability – of their players to make free throws.

One of my favorite of many Skip Prosser stories, told, no less by Ron Wellman, Wake’s director of athletics, was of the time a well-intentioned fan suggested to Skip that his team would be well-served to spend time at practice on free throws.

“Practice free throws,’’ Skip replied, taking out a pen and a piece of paper. “Let me write that down.’’

Did anybody else ever notice that Skip would look the other way when one of his players shot a free throw? I don’t think he did it all the time, but I saw him do so more than once.

I never asked him about it, but I imagined what his thinking might be – that this is now out of his hands, that there’s nothing he can do to influence the outcome on the court.

Nothing, perhaps, but pray.

He may have also been thinking that in more cases than he cared to admit, his team would have a better chance with him at the line than the player standing there.

College basketball players are marvelously trained athletes. They spend countless hours building and maintaining their bodies, knowing that the game has evolved to the point that only those in peak condition can survive more than a minute or two of live action without their heart bursting out of their chest.

Yet let the officials blow a whistle to stop the action, put a ball in their hands and ask them to make an uncontested shot from 15-feet away and their chances of doing so may be no better than that of the coach who put him in the game.

That’s why it has to be so frustrating for coaches. But that’s also why it’s so frustrating – if not incomprehensible — for the fans sitting in the stands or watching on television. Many of them, those with decent hand-to-eye coordination and just the least bit of practice, could stand at the line and be as likely to make the free throw as the finely-sculptured 20-year-old athlete who has spent years training to play the game.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, they all sit there and say `Hell I could do that.’ And truth be told, they might be right.

All basketball teams practice free throws. Back when I attended Wake’s practices, I’d see them do it. And I’d see plenty of the players come early, or stay late, and shoot free throws. They fully understand that a game might well come down to whether or not they can make that uncontested 15-footer.

Yet for all that physical ability and all that practice, you still see players like Terrence Thompson and Doral Moore of Wake, Luke Maye and Sterling Manly of North Carolina, Marvin Bagley III and Trevon Duval of Duke and Omer Yurtseven of N.C. State who, even on a good night, are lucky to make three out of every five attempts.

It’s one of those confounding aspects of the game of basketball that has to drive coaches crazy. But ultimately, they have only themselves to blame.

Of all the times I asked what was the secret to having a team that could make its free throws, the best answer was also the most succinct.

Recruit good shooters.

Pack Still Digging: Deacons Look Done

Whew. Damn good thing for Wake that the Louisville Cardinals didn’t know about Mitchell Wilbekin’s bum ankle.

Just think how ugly the proceedings could have gotten.

While coach Danny Manning and his staff were once again hiding injuries, there was no concealing the effort, or lack thereof, the Deacons expended en route to their seventh straight setback. The players didn’t even bother to deny it after last night’s 96-77 thrashing at the Yum Center.

“I just think like we didn’t come out and compete and have that same edge that we have been having,’’ Bryant Crawford said.

“We didn’t get back on defense,’’ freshman Chaundee Brown said. “That’s one thing we didn’t do. We weren’t fighting, like I said earlier. We got to move on to the next game.’’

Nor was there any disguising the obvious frustration some players are having for others, as the Deacons slipped to 8-13 and 1-8 in ACC play – thus rendering the second-half of the conference schedule totally meaningless to anyone other than the most die-hard of Wake fans.

Crawford and fellow backcourt mate, Brandon Childress spent the evening discussing what appeared to be something other than pleasantries. Crawford was especially demonstrative in his grievance after not giving Childress an passing outlet in the backcourt and then barking at him for the predictable over-and-back turnover.

My buddy Les Johns, a road warrior who made the 15-hour up-and-back drive to cover this fiasco for Demon Deacons Digest, asked Manning about the discord later. Again, Manning didn’t even attempt to deny the undeniable.

“When you lose, you should be upset,’’ Manning said. “You should be frustrated.’’

Johns, being the pro he is, had the follow-up ready. Is there any way, he asked, to channel that frustration into good use?

“Absolutely,’’ Manning replied. “As a coach, it’s `Get bitter and get better.’ Get bitter, but get better. And the only way you can get better is to continue to go out and play with effort and energy and things like that, which start to work in your favor.’’

Making the beat-down all the more bitter to Wake fans who have spent the last eight season watching little else had to be what was on full display earlier yesterday in another cavernous arena some 550 miles to the southeast. Like the rest of the ACC world, I watched in fascination as plucky N.C. State, in Kevin Keatts’ first trip to Chapel Hill as the Wolfpack’s head coach, walk into the Smith Center and claw out an 95-91 overtime victory over 10th-ranked North Carolina.

All season I’ve been hearing what a bad break Manning and his staff got when John Collins and Dinos Mitoglou left school for the money. A program like Wake, the reasoning goes, can’t survive such losses and expect to be competitive.

And yet here is N.C. State, a team that has also spent its time recently in the college basketball wilderness, that is playing without three key underclassmen from last year’s 15-17 edition, Dennis Smith, Maverick Rowan and Ted Kapita. The loss of Smith, a one-and-done currently averaging 14.7 points and 4.7 assists for the Dallas Mavericks, was as significant of a talent drain as Collins leaving Wake.

To see how the Wolfpack has improved since a 15-point home loss to UNC Greensboro in mid-December is truly inspiring, and stands as a testament to a new coach’s ability to make the most of what he has on hand.

N.C. State beat rival North Carolina yesterday because it was hungrier, because it wanted the game more. The Wolfpack went after the Tar Heels, grabbed them by the ankle, and didn’t let go until the final buzzer.

What I saw when Joel Berry dribbled across midcourt for North Carolina was a State defender in his face, digging at the basketball, trying like hell to take it away. What I saw was Berry, 35 feet from the basket, turning his back to protect the ball from harm.

I saw a team in red fighting it’s behind off, digging, digging, digging to get better.

“I’m not saying you have to do everything right,’’ Keatts said after the win. “But I want you to play hard.

“And I think they’re starting to believe in that.’’

We’ve reached the midway point of the ACC season. As a college basketball team, you reach late January and you’re either still digging or you’re done.

N.C. State, which has now beaten Arizona, Clemson, Duke and North Carolina – all ranked at the time – is still digging. The Wolfpack’s record of 15-7 overall and 5-4 inside the conference, reflects that.

Wake, meanwhile, looks for all the world like its done.

The mark of a good coach is not so much his record as what he does with the available talent on hand. Early this year I had a hard time watching the Wolfpack play because I couldn’t believe how badly Allerick Freeman was hogging the ball. I could see that Freeman, the grad student transfer from Baylor, was talented, but he appeared to have not concept whatsoever of team basketball.

Freeman is no longer a problem. He certainly wasn’t one yesterday when he was raining six 3-pointers down on the Tar Heels. He scored 29 points on 11 shots from the floor. He has clearly gotten with the program. Keatts, being the good coach he is, has reined him in and the team has prospered.

Back to Louisville. Wilbekin, a senior who has started 78 games at Wake, was injured some time last week in practice. Or at least that’s what the media was told shortly before the game started.

I guess Manning and Wake figured the media had to be told something. Wilbekin, after all, was along on the trip wearing a boot and relying on crutches.

As the Deacons’ beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal from 1992 through last August, I repeatedly waxed poetic over how Wake, with Dave Odom, Skip Prosser, Dino Gaudio and Jeff Bzdelik at the helm was the most transparent, media-friendly program in the ACC, if not all of college basketball. What a lucky man I was, and I have to think the fans who lived and died with every outcome were fortunate as well.

They had a connection with the program, through the coach via the media. Their investment in blood, sweat and tears was recognized, and considered accordingly.

I repeat often these days the sage words of Prosser. “Our practices are open until we get burned. And then they’re closed.’’

Here’s the kicker. At no time during Prosser’s six seasons – or for that matter the next eight seasons with Gaudio and Bzdelik calling the shots – were Wake’s practices closed because they were burned by the media.

We’ve reached the point where players are not playing for Wake and nobody cares. Pull the steel curtain down around a program and the next thing you know the media that once made regular trips to Joel Coliseum will find something more interesting to cover. And the fans who remain truly curious are left to speculate about the physical and mental state of the team on message boards.

Manning, after the game, was asked when Wilbekin might return.

“I don’t know,’’ Manning said. “How I deal with injuries is when the trainers tell me he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go.

“He’s slowly getting better. When he’s ready, he’ll be ready. I don’t have an answer for you on that.’’

Poor Leonard Hamilton. His FSU Seminoles are due in Joel Coliseum Wednesday for the Deacons’ next game and ol’ Leonard won’t get a minute’s sleep now agonizing over whether Mitchell Wilbekin might, or might not, be ready to go.

Introducing My Friend A.B.

Operator, can you help me,

Help me if you please,

Give me the right area code,

And the number that I need.Operator by the Grateful Dead.

My buddy Advanced Being dropped in the other day, as he has been known to do.

A.B., as I call him, never knocks. He doesn’t even enter the room the way you or I would. He simply materializes, and I’ll look up from watching a basketball game on TV or reading a book, and there will be an Orangutan or Gryphon or maybe some figure from popular culture or history such as Ben Franklin or Genghis Khan or Wink Martindale sitting across the room.

As an Advanced Being, A.B. can assume any form he wishes. And what I love best about my buddy is his sense of humor.

On this latest visit, he showed up as Ron McKernan, A.K.A. Pigpen, the original front man of the Grateful Dead who blew his liver out  on rot-gut wine. A.B. even had his harmonica with him, and I talked him into doing a spot-on rendition of “Turn on Your Lovelight.’’

If I could tell you where A.B. was from, I certainly would. I’ve asked a couple of times, whether he was from some other galaxy or plane or dimension, and his answer is always the same.

Don’t worry about it. You wouldn’t understand.

So I don’t.

As for why he chooses to visit me, of all people in whatever galaxy, plane or dimension he traverses, he’s equally succinct. He feels more comfortable in homes that appear “lived in,’’ and I’m prepared to say no place around looks more “lived in’’ than ours.

Plus, he likes Bud Light, and knows I always have a cold 12-pack or two in the refrigerator.

Being an Advanced Being, he could easily be hypercritical of all he sees from humans on the planet earth. But, thankfully, he’s beyond the need for derision or rapprochement. Instead, he’s just curious about our species and why we solve, or attempt to solve, our own particular set of challenges and problems the way we do.

On this latest visit, after he put away his harmonica and popped open another Bud Light, he started quizzing me about how we power our society and way of life.

A.B.: So humans, by now, do know that water can be a source of energy, right?

C.D.C.: Yeah, I think the Greeks figured that out sometime around 300 B.C.

A.B.: And you know that energy can be produced by wind, right?

C.D.C.: Indeed. The Chinese were hip to that by around 200 B.C.

A.B.: And you know that by harnessing the power of the sun, you can have all the energy any society would ever need.

C.B.: We’ve been a bit late to that one, but by the late 19th century, a scientist named William Grylis Adams discovered that exposing the mineral selenium to light can produce electricity. We needed another 75 years or so, but by the mid-20th century we’d gotten around to solar cells driven by silicon. Solar power is still a nascent industry today, but it has its champions and it’s picking up some steam – so to speak.

A.B.: So if you know your energy needs can be met with water, wind and sun, why are you still powering your automobiles and lighting your homes with coal and oil? Can’t you recognize the environmental problems caused by fossil fuels?

C.B.: If you’re talking global warming, some of us believe in what the scientists are telling us about that, and some of us don’t.

A.B.: Some of you don’t? Those people have to be living in remote third-world nations, right?

C.D.C.: Well, actually no. One is currently residing in the White House.

A.B.: If you know energy and electricity can be produced without resorting to coal or oil, why are you still so reliant on coal and oil?

C.D.C.: I would say it’s complicated, but it’s really not. The most powerful people in our society are those with the most money. And the ones with the most money derive much of that wealth from the coal and oil industries.

A.B.: What about the elected representatives responsible for the good of all of society, and not just the richest and most powerful?

C.D.C.: You can find them in the back pockets of the richest and most powerful.

A.B.: Don’t the richest and most powerful have to live in the same society that they’re doing grave harm to with their assault on the planet?

C.D.C: Personally I never see any of them, except on television. They live in these special enclaves, called “Gated Communities.’’

A.B.: And they’re allowed to live there in peace, without everyone else calling them out for who they are?

C.D.C.: Some do call them out. But the loudest voices in our society, the media, are also controlled by the richest and most powerful.

A.B.: Like your elected representatives?

C.D.C.: Exactly.

A.B.: Well it’s your planet, as long as it lasts. You guys kill me.

C.D.C.: Unfortunately A.B., we’re doing a good enough job of that ourselves. Need another Bud Light? And how about pulling out your harp and laying a little “Operator’’ on me.

Ghost of Robert O’Kelley Haunts Joel

One problem with living through half your sixth decade is that you start swearing you’ve already seen everything, whether you have or not.

Watching Duke extend Wake’s misery to six straight setbacks with last night’s 84-70 cuffing at Joel Coliseum, I could have sworn I saw Robert O’Kelley on the court wearing black and gold.

But once my rheumy eyes regained focus, I realized that it was only Bryant Crawford.

To compare Crawford to Robert O’Kelley, who played for Wake at the turn of the 21st century, is no great slam. O’Kelley scored 1,885 points over his four seasons, ranking ninth all-time in school history. He also played in post-season all four years.

The knock on O’Kelley is not as much what he did as how he did it. If O’Kelley, like, say, a Josh Howard or a Muggsy Bogues, had spent the early years of his career sewing seeds of promise that bloomed as a junior and senior, he would be remembered far more fondly today.

O’Kelley’s great transgression, so to speak, was that he promised what he failed to deliver. His career didn’t just stall, it regressed.

O’Kelley was ACC Rookie of the Year in 1997-98 when he broke in with 16.6 points a game. He was second-team All-ACC in 1998-99, when he averaged 17.5. The leader that season, Terrell McIntrye of Clemson, averaged 17.9.

Through two seasons O’Kelley had scored 1,041 points. The Great Randolph Childress, through his first two seasons on the court, scored 997. The Great Skip Brown, through his first two seasons, scored 933.

So if O’Kelley’s career had progressed in the way everyone expected, his jersey would be hanging today in Joel Coliseum.

Instead, his road to glory took a hair-pin curve he couldn’t negotiate and he never really got back on track. I can remember the exact time and place his career hit the ditch. It was March 5, 1999 in a 66-52 ACC Tournament quarterfinal loss to N.C. State in Charlotte’s second of three coliseums. That’s where O’Kelley, all of a sudden, forgot how to dribble a basketball.

It was hard enough to see him miss eight of the 10 shots he took that afternoon, but those things happen. But what I’ll never forget is the 11 turnovers he made that game, tying Jerry Schellenberg for a school record no one would ever want.

Whether his junior season was a hangover from that game may never be known. But what was obvious was that the O’Kelley of 1999-2000 was a shell of the player we had seen his first two seasons.

His scoring average plummeted 4.5 points, to 13 points a game. Worse, his field-goal accuracy slipped from 40.3 percent to 35.5 percent. And even worse than that, his 3-point accuracy cratered from 37.6 percent to 29.9 percent.

By then, Coach Dave Odom’s great asset had become a liability. And although O’Kelley recovered a bit as a senior, when he shot 41.8 percent from the floor and 35.1 percent from 3-point range while cutting his turnovers down to 1.4 a game, he still averaged a career-low 12 points a game.

The ACC Media Guide provides vote totals for only those players who make All-ACC, but I think it’s a safe bet that O’Kelley, after making second-team as a sophomore, never got another vote the rest of his career.

Crawford, through his first two seasons at Wake, scored 947 points, averaging 13.8 as a freshman and 16.2 as a sophomore. To watch him down the stretch of last season, when he scored 26 with five rebounds against Virginia Tech before averaging 20.5 and 4.5 assists against BC and the Hokies in the ACC Tournament, one could also see his jersey No. 13 hanging one day in the Joel Coliseum rafters.

And seeings how he’s only halfway through his junior season, one day it might.

But for him to deliver the promise of his first two seasons – and for Wake to salvage anything whatsoever from yet another lost season – he’s going to have to play far better than he’s played this season.

His scoring average is down only slightly, to 15.7 points a game, but that has more to do with the volume of shots he’s taking. Through 20 games, Crawford has attempted 250 shots from the floor. No teammate has taken more than 167.

Doral Moore, who has made 10 straight shots and who is shooting 73 percent, has taken 124.

If Crawford were making a decent percentage, his constant barrage at the basket might be understandable. But we all know that’s not the case. With last night’s 2-for-8 performance, Crawford is now shooting .388 from the floor – down from .438 last season. By making only one of five 3-point attempts (which came late, long after the issue had been settled) Crawford is shooting .330 from long-range – down from .346.

Meanwhile his turnovers keep piling up. He has 69 through 20 games, 28 more than anyone else on the team. Among the ACC leaders in assist/turnover ratio, only Frank Howard of Syracuse has more – with 80.

Every day is a new day, and Wake is guaranteed 11 more games. So there’s still time for Crawford to get it together, to have the kind of stretch run he had a season ago.

For the sake of his career, and the sake of the team, he needs to do so fast.

All I know is that in watching last night’s loss through my rheumy eyes, the game Bryant Crawford was playing – the two field goals on eight attempts, the eight turnovers, the Matador defense on Blue Devils whipping past him for layups – was a carbon copy of what I saw from Robert O’Kelley on March 5, 1999 in Charlotte.

Talk about your painful memories.

Real Deal in Town Tonight

So what do Jabari Parker, Jahlil Oakfor, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum have in common?

The answer is too easy: All four played at Duke over the past four years before being selected as one of the top three picks of the NBA draft.

So what do Parker, Oakfor, Ingram and Tatum not have in common? Again, a layup of a question.

None of them played together at Duke.

The Duke way these days is to provide a way station for the best players in the country for that one season they’re required to spend between high school and the NBA. It used to be the Kentucky way, until Mike Krzyzewski tired of John Calipari getting his way with the top recruits season after season.

So now the Parade of the Bluest of the Blue Chippers passes through Durham on the way to NBA fame and fortune. And good for Krzyzewski. Those are the rules of today’s game, and nobody plays them better than the greatest coach in the history of college basketball.

The Blue Devil team that plays Wake at Joel Coliseum tonight also features a player who if you want to see in college you’d better see this season. They probably feature more than one.

But as good as Parker, Oakfor, Ingram and Tatum were – and again they were all good enough to be one of the top three picks in the NBA draft – Krzyzewski’s fifth-straight phenom is better.

Yes, I know both Parker and Oakfor were unanimous choices for first-team All-ACC, and Oakfor was even named Player of the Year while leading Duke to the 2015 National Championship. All that said, I never saw them do all the marvelous things on a basketball court that this season’s phenom, Marvin Bagley, III can do.

Parker, Oakfor, Ingram and Tatum were special players. Bagley is extra special.

Since 1999, back in the previous millennium, the ACC, believe it or not, has had only one player picked first in the NBA draft. And given that the player in question, Kyrie Irving, was limited to only 11 games at Duke because of an injury, he hardly counts.

I’m no expert on NBA basketball, but from what people who are tell me, Bagley is the odds-on favorite to have his name called first this June. Anybody who might pass on him would be risking the wrath of history.

Through his first 19 games of college basketball, Bagley is averaging 21.8 points and 11.4 rebounds – which not only leads the conference in both categories but makes him the only college player to be averaging at least 21 points and 11 rebounds.

He’s making 61 percent of his field-goal attempts and 34 percent of his 3-point tries. He has already put up 30 points in a game five times, most ever by a freshman, and he has 15 double-doubles.

Wendell Carter, Jr., a 6-10 freshman for Duke, is also a hell of a player. He’s so good he might be the best freshman in the league if not for this teammate named Bagley.

It’s too easy sometimes to forget how good a Parker, Oakfor, Ingram and Tatum were in college. Parker and Oakfor were beasts inside and Ingram and Tatum were supersized wings with the ball skills of a point guard.

Tatum, in looking back, didn’t even make second-team All-ACC last season. But by tournament time in Brooklyn last March, I thought he might have been the best player in the league. And if not the best, then the most talented.

From what I’ve seen of Bagley – albeit, all on television – he combines the skills of Parker and Oakfor with those of Ingram and Tatum. Crowd him and he’ll fly by for a dunk. Slough off, and he’ll drain a three.

And to think, if he had not reclassified, Bagley would be playing high school basketball. Tonight he’ll be playing at Joel Coliseum.

Catch him now. The next time Duke returns to Winston-Salem, Marvin Bagley III will be making some NBA team very happy.

Wake Jumps the Gun on Reruns

Traditionally, reruns don’t begin until the regular season ends.

Breaking with that tradition, the 2017-18 Wake Forest basketball team has jumped the gun on reruns. Those of us watching the Deacons (8-11 and 1-6 in conference play) plunge ever deeper into the college basketball hinterlands keep being shown the same show over and over.

And it’s a bad show, a synopsis of which goes like this:

The Deacons play pretty good defense until it really matters. And then they don’t.

The Deacons don’t get the ball to Doral Moore, their main inside threat, until it really doesn’t matter.

And then they do.

At halftime of last night’s 59-49 home loss to No. 2 Virginia, I started to believe I might see something actually worth seeing. The Deacons led by two at half, and although the Cavaliers owned the pace, they didn’t appear to be all that inspired on this particular Sunday night.

And Wake beat Virginia at its own game in the first 20 minutes, locking down on defense to get stops on 16 of the Cavaliers’ 26 first-half possessions.

Granted Moore had only three points. But that, I reasoned, had as much to do with the two fouls that limited his participation to 11 minutes as the fact that, while he was on the court, the Deacons had fed him with only three entry passes.

He would start the second half with two, I knew, so there would be no excuses if Wake didn’t try to get the big man going.

A confession is in order here. Watching a game on television can be dangerous, especially if there’s an NFL playoff game on another channel. And stupid me, I admit I got caught watching Patrick Robinson of the Eagles return an interception 50-yards for a touchdown and missed the first minute of the Wake-Virginia second half.

Mitchell Wilbekin was at the free-throw line when I switched back, and Virginia had already scored. I didn’t see the first Wake possession, but unless someone fed Moore the ball in the post before Wilbekin got fouled, then that would have been the only time in the first 16 minutes of the half anybody bothered to do so.

The clock showed 4:11 remaining when Brandon Childress lobbed inside for a Moore dunk. The basket cut the lead to 50-45. De’Andre Hunter of Virginia answered with a 3-pointer, and that was pretty much that. Wake got no closer than six, even though Moore got paint touches on the next two possessions.

Somebody’s memory finally got jogged. The Deacons have a 7-1, 285-pound center who has improved dramatically since last season, so much so that he has made 82 of the 115 shots he has taken from the field for a mind-blowing 71 percent.

He’s proven that the only people who can stop Moore from scoring in the low blocks are his teammates, by not throwing him the ball in the low blocks.

Meanwhile, Bryant Crawford, Keyshawn Woods, Brandon Childress and Wilbekin have taken more shots than Moore. For that matter, even Chaundee Brown has taken 117 to Moore’s 115. And Brown, the prize recruit of Coach Danny Manning’s fourth recruiting class, can’t even stay on the floor. He’s averaging 19.4 minutes a game, compared to Moore’s 23.

Plus, he’s played one fewer game.

But the statistic that explains best the fractured nature of Manning’s fourth team at Wake is that Crawford has taken twice as many field-goal attempts – and then some – as Moore. And Crawford, who has heaved the ball at the basket 242 times, is shooting 39 percent, compared, again, to Moore’s 71 percent.

Manning has convinced me that his esteemed reputation for coaching big men is justified. To see the improvement made by John Collins — from a recruit ranked outside the top 100 to the 19th pick of the NBA draft – convinced me of Manning’s expertise in that regard.

And to be honest, after watching Moore huff and puff his way up and down the court the first two years, I had written him off as another bust. To see how he has emerged as junior is further proof of Manning’s ability to develop big men.

I used the word emerged cautiously because to emerge one has to make some noise nationally. And few outside the Wake bubble are even hearing a peep from Moore because of the way he’s getting used, or — in this case – misused.

Dewan Huell of Miami leads the ACC with a field-goal accuracy of 62 percent. That’s because a player has to make five field goals a game to be ranked.

Moore is averaging 4.3.

Think about that a moment. Wake has a center who is making more than seven out of every 10 shots he takes from the floor and he’s averaging barely four field goals a game.

Which begs the question: What is the point of developing a big man if you’re not going to use him once the game begins?

Close Again Gets Wake No Cigar

College basketball can be a fast game, played at a blistering pace.

Although I never sat on a team bench during a college game, I spent 40 years sitting within yards, if not feet, of one. In a way it’s like sitting in the infield of a super speedway and watching the rocket cars whiz by you down the backstretch.

You can’t believe how fast everything is moving. And in basketball, the deeper into the game it gets, the faster everything seems to move.

And here’s the thing. Basketball is not a turn-based game. Yes one team gets the ball at a time, but that doesn’t mean there’s not another team out there trying to take it away. This is not chess, checkers, backgammon or Sid Meier’s Civilization. One doesn’t get to sit and ponder his next move before making it.

No college coach can control his team’s every move. Balls get knocked away, players fall down, defenders jump out and take charges, layups get missed. A coach is not a conductor with a baton in his hand. He has to think fast and make split-second decisions on the fly.

There are those college coaches, though, who have a knack for slowing the game down in their heads, for staying one step ahead of the action. And then there are those who always seem a step behind, and the action moves too fast for them.

Of all the coaches I covered, the one most spectacularly unequipped for discharging the duties for which he had been hired was Jeff Bzdelik. His shortcomings were legion, the most glaring of which was his singular inability to express himself in a way that folks knew what the hell he was talking about.

Let’s just say that when it came down to promoting himself and his program, Bzdelik was no Jim Valvano or Skip Prosser.

But Bzdelik, who today is the associate head coach of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, is a basketball lifer. I could tell during his four years as Wake’s head coach that the man knows the game. And it was always my impression that when his teams actually managed to stay within hailing distance until the end, they won their share of close games.

Impressions can be dangerously unreliable, so I just looked it up. And sure enough, in Bzdelik’s games at Wake that were decided by no more than six points – two possessions with today’s 3-point shot – the Deacons were 9-6.

The sad truth was that his teams were rarely within hailing distance, hence his 18-55 mark against ACC opponents.

Danny Manning has strengths as a basketball coach. He exudes stability. He carries himself well and runs what certainly appears from the outside looking in to be a ship-shape program. He commands respect from the media, the fans and his players. And although he rarely says much of anything that reveals the inner workings of the team, he doesn’t embarrass himself or his university at the podium.

But in his three-plus seasons as Wake’s head coach, he has displayed scant ability to slow the game down during winning time and consistently make the split-second calls his team might need to pull out the victory.

He had a chance to do so again last night at N.C. State, where the Deacons led by two with two minutes and change remaining.

That’s when the Deacons started jacking and the Wolfpack, cashing in fast-break baskets, scored the final 11 points of a 72-63 victory.

Making the pill even more bitter for Wake faithful to swallow was how predictable the collapse turned out to be. It mirrored the game on Dec. 23 when Tennessee scored the final 13 points of a 79-60 victory as well as the game on Dec. 30 when North Carolina scored the final eight points of a 73-69 win.

Listening to the post-game provided by my good buddy Les Johns of Demon Deacons Digest, I heard him lament his team’s shot-selection with the game on the line. I can understand why.

Doral Moore, having maybe the best game I’ve ever seen him play, was wearing the Wolfpack out in the first half, when the Deacons fed him in the post nine times and he scored nine points. But we’ve all seen the second-half movie before, the one in which Wake makes all of four entry passes into Moore and he manages only six more points.

He scored his final bucket when he rebounded first a miss by Keyshawn Woods, and then a miss of his own, to follow with a dunk. The clock showed 4:30, and Moore never touched the ball in the paint again.

“We have to just continue to get paint-touches, and not settle,’’ Manning said in response to a question from Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal. “I thought we settled a little bit for long jump shots, as opposed to continuing to attack the paint and get paint-touches.’’

Again, the flow of a basketball game can get fractured with deflections and all kinds of assorted breakdowns that no coach can anticipate. And, again, the coach is not a conductor with a baton in his hand.

But there are those coaches who are able, more often than not, to get their team to do what they want done with the game on the line.

Danny Manning does not appear at this point in his coaching career to be one of those coaches.

All of which brings us to the stat I stumbled across while trying to figure out what to write about the loss at N.C. State. In games that Manning has coached at Wake decided by no more than six points, the Deacons are 11-17.

The mark doesn’t really look all that bad next to his overall record of 18-46 against ACC opponents.

But it’s not good. And it’s also decidedly worse than that of the man he replaced.