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.

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