The program with the second-best record in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge wasn’t invited to participate in next season’s ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
Word came down late last week that Wake will be left out when teams from the two power conferences square off again in the fall. The ACC has 15 teams, and the Big Ten only 14, so one team from the ACC had to be excluded.
And for the second time in the past six seasons, the program excluded was Wake.
The news got me to thinking about better times, when some of Wake’s best non-conference victories I ever saw came in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. The ACC leads the challenge 12 victories to five (with two ties) in no small part because of the Deacons.
Other than Duke, which has won 17 and lost only two, no team has risen to the occasion more often than Wake. The Deacons have won 12 of 17, for a winning percentage of .706 that easily eclipses that of fellow-Big Four rivals North Carolina (.526) and N.C. State (.389).
I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a more impressive non-conference Wake victory than on Dec. 4, 2002, when the Deacons walked into Wisconsin’s Kohl Center – where we had all been told no road team ever wins – and walked out with a 90-80 victory.
The performance signaled that Skip Prosser and company had more in store for the ACC that season than most people expected from a team that featured senior Josh Howard, sophomores Vytas Danelius, Jamaal Levy and Taron Downey and freshmen Justin Gray and Eric Williams.
Picked to finish sixth, the Deacons actually finished alone in first in the regular season for the first time since 1962.
Wake, along the way, also won at Michigan in 2000, at Iowa in 2007, at Nebraska in 2011 and at Rutgers in 2015.
The Deacons were actually 5-0 in the Challenge before traveling to Illinois as the top-ranked team in the nation (remember, we’re talking about better times) in 2004, where they lost to the fifth-ranked Illini 91-73. They then won three more in a row (making them 8-1) before losing at Purdue in 2009.
Even Jeff Bzdelik, at 2-1, had a winning record in the Challenge, though his one loss will be long remembered for his post-game comments. Wake lost to Nebraska 79-63, and afterward Bzdelik complained about the game being played on a Tuesday.
Something about Tuesday being Wake’s toughest academic day. Never mind the Huskers traveled the better part of 1,200 miles to beat the Deacons.
In case you’re wondering, the current coach, Danny Manning, is 2-2 in the Challenge, making him the only Wake coach to lose more than once. He lost at home to Minnesota his first season, won at Rutgers his second, lost at Northwestern and beat Illinois last season.
The snub is another indignity the Wake fan base has to suffer. The Deacons, before Ron Wellman hired Jeff Bzdelik in 2010, had one of the proudest programs in the ACC. It takes a strong program to reach post-season play 16 straight seasons (with 12 being appearances in the NCAA Tournament), as Wake did with Dave Odom and Prosser at the helm.
Now, in Manning’s fifth season as head coach, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge will be played without Wake.
I’ve seen many successful coaches need a season or three to get their programs up and running, and for a new coach at a new program not to be invited is regrettable, but it can be understandable.
But can anyone offer a reasonable excuse for a program being in such sad shape going into a coach’s fifth season that it’s not invited to play in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge? If so, I’d love to hear it.
Word also filtered out last week that Manning has hired his son, Evan, as director of player development. Evan was a walk-on at Kansas, from where he graduated in 2016, and he spent last season as a program assistant and team manager.
I’ve also heard some grumbling about Manning – facing such a critical off-season given the influx of at least six new scholarship players — spending the first half of June tending to his duties as assistant coach for the USA Basketball Men’s Under18 team.
My own take is that he should hire who he wants to hire and spend his summer the way he wants to spend it.
A coach should be judged by the bottom line, how many he wins and how many he loses.
Wake, under Manning, is 54-72 and 21-56 against the ACC coaches he was hired to beat.
And come next fall, when the ACC-Big Ten Challenge cranks back home, Wake fans can reminisce about better times, when the Deacons were actually too good to be left out.