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.

The Lengths Clemson Has Gone to Lose

Throughout my life, I’ve heard that nothing is forever.

Nothing, that is, other than Clemson traveling to Chapel Hill to get beat in basketball.

Clemson made its 59th straight fruitless trip to play North Carolina this week. If that’s not forever, it’s the closest thing the game of college basketball has to offer.

If the Tigers, following last night’s 87-79 setback, managed to beat-feet it out of the Smith Center in rapid order, they may have even made it back down I-85 to the Upstate before the snow got too heavy to make it home.

Think about all the hours Clemson basketball teams have bused up and down I-85 when required to play at Chapel Hill. All of the trips were made in winter, so think of all the lengths the Tigers had to go and the conditions they had to brave.

All just to get beat in basketball.

Being the incorrigible wise-acre everyone knows me to be, I couldn’t resist checking Google map for the distance between Clemson, S.C. and Chapel Hill. The result was 271 miles, which, for these purposes, will be rounded off at 270.

Take 270 and multiple by 2. Teams traveling to Chapel Hill have to get back home.

Now take 540 and multiple it by 59. What we get is 31,860 miles.

The circumference of the earth is 24,901 miles. So for all the miles Clemson traveled to play in Chapel Hill, the Tigers could have headed east and circumnavigated the globe once, and made it all the way to Beijing on their second trip around.

Instead they traveled those 31,860 miles up and down I-85 between Clemson and Chapel Hill. All just to get beat in basketball.

The streak was once far easier to understand than it is today. Throughout the early years of the ACC, Clemson remained little more than fodder for the big guns of the conference such as N.C. State, Duke and, yes, North Carolina.

But let the record book show that Clemson has also brought some good teams to Chapel Hill.

Bill Foster’s 1980 squad won 23 games and made it to the Final Eight.

Cliff Ellis’ 1987 team, led by Horace Grant, the ACC Player of the Year, finished 10-4 in the ACC and won 25 games.

Ellis’ 1990 team, anchored by Dale Davis and Elden Campbell, finished first in the regular season at 10-4, and beat BYU and LaSalle in the NCAA Tournament. I saw them lose to Connecticut 71-70 in the regional semis in the Meadowlands.

Rick Barnes’ 1997 team, featuring Greg Buckner and Terrell McIntyre, won 23 games and beat Miami of Ohio and Tulsa in the NCAA Tournament before losing to Minnesota in double overtime in the Sweet 16.

And all of Oliver Purnell’s last four teams – as well as Brad Brownell’s first – won at least 21 games in what was probably the program’s most sustained run of success. The 2008 team made it all the way to the championship of the ACC Tournament, for the first time since 1962 and only the second time in school history. Those of use gathered in Charlotte thought we were going to see some real history made.

But no. The Tigers lost the title game, 86-81 to who else but North Carolina?

And the Clemson faithful have to know that if all were fair in the world, the Tigers would have won in Chapel Hill. Truth is, they would have won more than once.

As a young pup just starting out, I witnessed two losses that rankle Clemson fans today – as they should.

All this took place in 1974 and 1975, my senior season in college (when I was already working part-time for the local paper) and my first year as a full-time sportswriter.

The 1974 loss was a real travesty. The Tigers were royally screwed in Carmichael Auditorium. They ended up losing 61-60 when, with the game on the line, Jo Jo Bethea was twice called for traveling and the Tigers, as a team, were twice called for three-second violations. The second three-second call was made on Tree Rollins before the Clemson advanced the ball past half-court.

The words Coach Tates Locke used in describing John Russell, one of the ACC’s first black officials, would cause even those reporters covering today’s White House to blanch.

Now anyone who knows ACC basketball knows that Tates Locke was a real beauty. With the help of a way-too-influential booster named B.C. Inabinet Locke cheated his behind off to make Clemson good in basketball. I know this to be true because Locke confessed it all in his autobiography, Caught in the Net.

The book also revealed that Locke was a basket-case coaching basketball by the time he brought his best team to Chapel Hill in 1975. He was chasing speed with scotch and beer, and his life was a wreck. Once, while vacationing on a house boat, he really lost it and ended up choking Charlie Harrison, an assistant coach.

“Tates was having a nightmare,’’ Harrison recalled to Rick Telander of Sports Illustrated. “But it scared me good.’’

The 1975 team might have been the best I ever saw play for Clemson. Rollins was a beast as a sophomore who averaged 13.7 points and 11.7 rebounds. Stan Rome, a freshman, was a talented 6-5 wing who averaged 10.4 points and 4.7 rebounds and shot 53 percent from the floor. Wayne Croft, Colon Abraham and Bethea were all really good players.

But the catalyst was Skip Wise, a burly, street-wise 6-5 freshman guard from Baltimore who tore up the league during his one pass before heading off the the ABA and, eventually prison for the distribution of heroin. Wise, who averaged 18.5 points, was the first freshman named first-team All-ACC.

What I remember best about the 1975 game was Wise backing freshman Phil Ford down in the paint and shooting over him for another basket.

But in the end, what happened was just another variation of what always happens when Clemson plays at Chapel Hill. Walter Davis drilled a 20-foot jumper with 15 seconds left and the Tar Heels pulled out a 74-72 victory.

My favorite recollection of the night occurred afterward, in a cramped hallway as I and other intrepid reporters made their way to the losing locker room to get reaction from Locke and his players.

Those from my era will remember that Carmichael Auditorium was a three-sided arena built into the side of Woollen Gym. The visiting locker rooms were actually in Woollen Gym, down the same hall where the pool was located. There were lockers on both sides of the hall, and benches bolted into the floor for students to sit on and change into their bathing suits with the chlorine fumes wafting all around them.

Even at 22, I thought I knew what to expect from Locke.

But it’s safe to say I was not prepared for the fireworks that followed.

The editor I was working for at the time, a good man named Howard Owen, was into recruiting big-time. And Clemson, at the time, was recruiting Larry Gibson, who, like Wise, was from Baltimore. Unbeknownst to me, Owen had written that Clemson’s chances for Gibson didn’t look good because of the reports coming out of the upstate how Locke and Wise were at loggerheads.

(Gibson, for those who have forgotten, did spurn Clemson to sign with Lefty Driesell and Maryland).

So here stands Tates Locke, jacked up on who knows what, and he has just had his heart ripped out of his chest and stomped a second-straight season in Chapel Hill. And just before he begins his address to all us scribes jammed in around him, he’s handed a clipping of Howard’s column.

Tates’ face gets redder and redder the deeper he reads. And then he asks, in a tone he somehow manages to keep conversational, “Is this man here?’’

I’m looking over Locke’s shoulder and I see Howard’s column mug staring up at me.

“No, he’s not here,’’ I offer.

“Is anybody from this paper here,’’ Locke asks.

Stupid me, but I answered “Yes. I’m from the Chapel Hill Newspaper.’’

“You’re excused,’’ Locke said, again his voice not that much louder than a whisper.

“Huh?’’ I ask.

“You’re excused,’’ Locke repeats, his voice rising like the needle of a thermometer on a Sahara sunrise.

Forty-tree years have passed, so I can’t remember everything Locke screamed at me as I walked back down the hall and around the corner. I do remember something about how Howard Owen had better not write anything like this again, and if he does, how Tates Locke was going to track him down and strangle him til his eyeballs popped out.

Again, I was 22 and in my first season as a full-time sportswriter. I didn’t know at the time what I was getting myself into, but I knew it wouldn’t be boring.

I also knew that some year some Clemson team was going to walk into Chapel Hill and win a game of basketball. I’m retired from the newspaper business these days, and I’m still waiting.

They Didn’t Know About Tommy Bo

From all I’ve heard, scouting reports can be pretty extensive in the NFL, especially in preparation for playoff opponents.

Shame on the Pittsburgh Steelers for not incorporating research taken from the pages of the Winston-Salem Journal into the defensive game plan for yesterday’s divisional matchup with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

I confess that being only a casual fan of pro football, I had lost track of Tommy Bohanon, the fullback/H-back at Wake from 2009 through 20012. I knew that he had caught on with the New York Jets as a seventh-round draft pick, but I had also heard that he got cut in September of 2016, after spending two seasons starting at fullback for the Jets and another mostly on the shelf with a broken collarbone.

So, much to my surprise I looked up yesterday and lo, there was Tommy Bo running all by himself through the Steelers’ secondary to catch a touchdown pass in the Jaguars’ 45-42 victory.

Having covered Tommy Bo for four seasons, and getting to know him well enough to like him, I was glad to see him doing himself proud. His doing so also sparked a recollection from his days at Wake.

I remembered vaguely writing about what a good receiver Bohanon proved to be and I remembered that, for all the weight he was able to throw around in Ethan Reeve’s training room, he had the best hands for a big guy I had ever seen.

All it took was a quick Google search – the same search the Steelers could have easily taken – to pull up the piece I wrote midway through his senior season. Bohanon’s statistics from the 2017 regular season show he caught only six passes for 43 yards, but clearly if the Steelers had looked a little deeper then Tommy Bo wouldn’t have been running all by his lonesome through their secondary en route to a critical fourth-quarter touchdown.

Bohanon, converted from fullback to H-back before his senior season, caught 23 passes for 208 yards as a senior. Five of those catches resulted in touchdowns. Another helped save the Deacons the embarrassment of losing the season opener to Liberty, when his 28-yard reception from Tanner Price in the fourth quarter set up a two-yard plunge from Deandre Martin that proved to be the winning touchdown.

Again, I’m not big expert of pro football, but I could see that Mike Tomlin and the Steelers’ coaching staff were off their game yesterday. Turns out, their problems began before kickoff.

With one quick Google search, they could have known what we know. Watch Tommy Bo out of the backfield.

Moore of the Same

The official Wake Forest game notes for today’s trip to Duke stated that the Deacons had lost 17-straight games in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

That, in itself, is a sad commentary of what was once a great rivalry between two charter ACC schools.

It’s also wishful thinking.

Wake, going into today’s game, had lost 18-straight at Cameron Indoor. I should know. I was there, crammed into the suffocating confines for all 18.

I also had the good fortune of being there for all five victories during Wake’s run of nine-straight wins over Duke back in the 1990s, back when it really was a rivalry. If that seems like ancient history, well, that’s because it is.

Tim Duncan was on the court the last time Wake won at Duke. The same Tim Duncan who retired at the end of 2015-16 after a 19-year Hall-of-Fame NBA career.

Duncan may or may not have been watching on television when Duke extended the streak to 19-straight home victories with today’s 89-71 beat-down. I admit I was. And what I saw was pretty much what we’ve all come to expect when the Deacons travel across Guilford, Alamance and Orange counties to play the Blue Devils in basketball.

I saw one team that may win the national championship. I saw another destined to spend March watching the Dukes of the world play the only games that really matter anymore in college basketball, the ones played in the NCAA Tournament.

Today’s cuffing was mild by the standard set over the past 19 seasons. It wasn’t the good fight Wake waged the past two seasons, losing by eight in 2016 and by five last year. But at least it wasn’t as bloody as the 43-point loss (94-51) in 2015 or the back-to-back 31-point poundings of 1998 (78-47) and 1999 (102-71).

The Deacons actually improved their margin of defeat at Duke over the past 19 trips. The margin had been 19.7 points a game. After today, it’s 19.6 points a game.

Obviously Danny Manning had nothing to do with the first 15-straight losses at Duke. They were before his time.

Instead today’s result is simply another stark reminder of how far the Wake basketball program has plummeted since Skip Prosser’s sudden and shocking death in 2007, and how hard it is to get back to where all college basketball teams want to be.

All college teams want to be relevant outside their own base.

But what has Wake accomplished in basketball since 2010 that would be of any interest whatsoever to anyone sitting in, say, Peoria, Illinois – or anyone, for that matter, who doesn’t bleed black and gold?

Was it making the NCAA Tournament last year, only to get jettisoned before the original field of 64 began play?

If you want to pick the point, OK, I’ll give it to you. Wake was relevant last March. For a couple of days.

Duke didn’t need Mike Krzyzewski – sitting out with what was described as flu-like symptoms – to beat Wake for the 19th-straight time at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The Blue Devils did benefit from a whistle that resulted in them taking 34 free throws, compared to nine by the visitors. And they did benefit from the foul trouble that limited center Doral Moore to only 17 minutes.

But the question I kept asking was what good does having Doral Moore on the court at the offensive end do when Wake goes possession after possession without getting him the ball?

I keep track of two stats while watching Wake these days – the number of stops the Deacons get on defense and the number of times they make an entry-pass to Moore in the post.

The defense had shown improvement since the first of the year, but today Wake managed only 36 stops on 78 Blue Devil possessions. Duke took charge by scoring on 16 of the last 22 times it had the ball in the first half, and put Wake away with points on nine of 10 trips down-floor midway through the second half.

But after hearing Manning mention, repeatedly, how important it is for his big men to get paint-touches, I have to wonder how he feels knowing that in Moore’s 17 minutes today, Bryant Crawford and company found him with an entry pass only six times.

And that was counting the time he found himself ahead of the pack for a fast-break layup.

None of those six times, incidentally, came in the first half, while Duke was gaining control. Maybe the biggest indictment of Wake’s fractured offense, though, was what happened when the Deacons did get Moore the ball three times over the final 3 ½ minutes.

All three passes resulted in dunks, with Moore getting fouled and completing the three-point play on one. So seven of his nine points came after the game had long-since been settled.

By now Doral Moore has to know that if he wants the ball, he needs to go get it off the boards. He has no teammates willing or able to pass it to him.

And by now Manning and his team are filing out of Cameron Indoor and getting ready for the drive back across Orange, Alamance and Guilford counties. For the 19th-straight time, Wake is returning empty-handed.

Following the first 18 of those losses, I made that trip back home as well. And I can remember riding back up I-40 wondering what the hell happened to the Wake basketball program and what it was going to take to make it what it once was?

I’m wondering the same today. The only difference is today I’m wondering that from the comfort of my own home.