For Wake, Exam Break Time Well-Spent

Back when Wake was a team to be reckoned with in the ACC, a home victory over Davidson would be nothing to email or text home about.

Of course that was so long ago, folks were still writing letters.

Not really.

It just seems that way.

Many seasons have passed since Wake was a team to be reckoned with in the ACC, which made tonight’s 67-63 victory over Bob McKillop’s Wildcats its best effort of the season.

Yeah, I know Davidson was playing without its best player, Kellan Grady, a second-team All-Atlantic 10 guard averaging 19.4 points. But it’s always been my contention that a team plays with who’s available, no excuses. And I’ll remain consistent by saying Wake took a nice step tonight, Grady or no Grady.

Dave Odom always loved exam break, because it gave him a chance to go back to basics and correct all the mistakes from the season’s first brace of games. And it certainly appeared tonight that Danny Manning put the 11 days since the Deacons last played to good use.

The defense – the Deacons’ most glaring shortcoming over Manning’s four seasons – was really, really good tonight. Or at least it was until it wasn’t. The Wildcats closed the game by either scoring or getting fouled (or both) on their last seven possessions, and 10 of their last 11.

But over the first 36 minutes, while they were building a 14-point lead, the Deacons were downright suffocating on defense. By my count, Wake got 18 stops on Davidson’s 28 first-half possessions, and then came back out and stymied the Wildcats on 15 of their first 26 trips across half-court in the second half.

Davidson shot 37 percent from the floor for the game, made seven of 24 shots from beyond the arc and got to the line for only 12 attempts.

That’s a showing against a good team that Manning will take any time, if he can get it. The biggest reason he’s failed in his four-plus seasons to turn the program’s fortunes around is that he has got that kind of showing so few times.

The late-game largess has become so routine as to be predictable. But the Deacons were able to overcome their generosity tonight because they kept scoring themselves.

As I’ve mentioned, I watch games these days with a pad in hand, charting Wake’s defensive stops. But over the 11 days since the Deacons last played, I decided to also keep tabs on another problem that has saddled Wake in the early going.

After every loss, it seems, Manning has decried his team’s inability to get enough paint touches. Teams assemble these days during the first semester of summer school, back in May, so if six months later a team is not doing what the coach wants, then whose fault is that?

But for tonight I decided to also chart the possessions that Wake got the ball either to the basket, into the lane, into the key or in the short corner along the base line. All teams strive to break down the defense, because it opens up so many more ways (foul shots, follow shots, kick-out jumpers) to score.

Bad teams – and Wake would certainly qualify over most of Manning’s tenure – tend to settle for jump shots without making the defense work. We’ve all seen the Deacons lose games because they quit getting the ball inside, and we’ve all heard Manning grumble about it later.

My bet is that another major point of emphasis over the past 11 games has been to be more aggressive on offense and attack the defense more. If so, the concentration on that facet of the game paid off tonight.

Again, by my count, the Deacons got the ball inside on 28 of 34 first-half possessions, and on 29 of 37 possessions after halftime. The ball moved, and so did the players, allowing Wake to shoot 48 percent from the floor, get to the line for 20 attempts and mount a balance attack.

On a night no player took more than 12 attempts from the floor, Jaylen Hoard (16 points), Brandon Childress (16 points), Chaundee Brown (13 points), Torry Johnson (10 points) and Olivier Sarr (8 points on 4-of-5 shooting) all had offensive games they could feel good about.

Those who have found me at My Take on Whatever know I’ve been pretty critical of Manning and his inability to pull the once-proud Wake program from the doldrums of the Jeff Bzdelik years. And I’m not about to declare after one nice victory over Davidson in mid-December that the Deacons have turned the corner.

A much more telling test will come Saturday when Wake travels up I-40 to Knoxville to face Rick Barnes and his third-ranked Volunteers of Tennessee. If the Deacons show the same improvement at Thompson-Boling Arena, then I’ll begin to wonder if maybe Manning is finally building something worth watching at Wake.

Of course it’s been so long, it might be hard to recognize. But we’ll see, and we’ll all see together.

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