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.