Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that in the modern game of college basketball there are only two reasons for a coach to play as much zone as Wake played in Tuesday night’s 71-67 victory over No. 17 N.C. State.

One is by design. Go the Syracuse route and recruit enough active, long-armed players to make the zone a real pain in the posterior to face.

The other is by necessity. Play zone because your man-to-man presents no more impediment than a busted turnstile on the Green Line.

Danny Manning, by lineage, is a man-to-man guy. He said so when he became head coach at Wake to the surprise of no one who knows his background at Kansas – one of college basketball’s most staunch man-to-man programs.

But desperate times call for desperate measures and Manning has seen the need for this, his fifth team at Wake, to be a zone team. Good for him. Something had to be done as the Deacons sunk ever lower in rankings of defensive efficiency and shooting percentages and point totals of the opponents continued to soar.

And if he can find a few more teams that attack the zone as poorly as N.C. State did in the first half last night, he might even win a handful of ACC games in this – again – his fifth season as the Deacons’ head coach.

I’ve been really impressed with what Kevin Keatts has done in his first two seasons as the Wolfpack’s coach. He’s one of many examples why it doesn’t always take three, four, or even five seasons to turn the fortunes of a program around.

But I couldn’t, for the life of me, understand why he didn’t get more grips on his team in the first half last night when Wake packed its zone back and just dared N.C. State to heave it up from outside. Not until halftime – by which point the Pack had missed 13 out of 14 3-pointers to fall behind by as many as 22 points – did Keatts get his message across that the way to beat Wake is to take the ball to the hoop.

N.C. State took the ball to the hoop after the break and roared back into contention, scoring on 13 of the first 19 second-half possessions to tie the game at 58. If you were like me, you probably thought Wake’s goose was cooked. But to the Deacons’ considerable credit, they showed enough grit and fortitude to get six straight stops in winning time and make the plays needed to pull out their first ACC victory over.

Yeah, I know. Markell Johnson, probably the Pack’s best player, missed the game with a back injury. But my position is and has always been that you play with and against who is available. Once you start factoring in the impact of an injury you’ve entered the hazy, slippery realm of conjecture.

Say Johnson had been available, and was as bad against Wake as he was against North Carolina, when he 1-for-7 from 3-point range with five turnovers? We’ll never know, so it’s useless to speculate.

The team Danny Manning put on the floor beat the team that Kevin Keatts put on the floor, and that’s all that matters. And he did so by out-coaching Keatts. His strategy of playing a compacted zone worked.

And maybe you also noticed that with the Deacons clinging to a 67-66 lead, Manning called timeout and hustled Torry Johnson into the game for Sharone Wright, Jr., and that it was Johnson who not only sank the runner but also nailed the two free throws with 13 seconds left to all but clinch the victory.

Manning also showed flexibility on offense with a lineup that had freshman Jaylen Hoard essentially playing center for key stretches. Hoard was certainly up to the task, finishing with 16 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals for a stat line that would have done Josh Howard proud.

Danny Manning hasn’t had all that many good nights as head coach at Wake, but he had one last night. Good for him.

Now if he can just carry that momentum into the next two games at Virginia Tech on Saturday and at Virginia on Tuesday.

And maybe, just maybe, he can pack his zone back into the lane and tempt Buzz Williams and Tony Bennett to allow their teams to launch one brick after another from 3-point range.

If there’s another way Wake can escape falling to 1-5 going into the Jan. 26 home game against Boston College, perhaps you can see it.

Because I certainly can’t.

The Big Four — Sans One

Dean Smith could be petty, and he could definitely be persnickety. But like many people who achieve greatness, Smith had many facets to his personality.

In the proper setting, he could be exceedingly polite. He was taught to be polite and he wanted to be polite, whether he achieved his goal or not.

So it was Dean just being Dean when he walked out onto the Greensboro Coliseum court before North Carolina’s game against N.C. State early in the 1974-75 season. He noticed that directly behind the Tar Heel bench sat a fan of Wake Forest, which would play Duke in the second game that evening.

“I want to apologize in advance,’’ Smith told the Wake fan. “My players stand to acknowledge a teammate’s good play, and you may have your view blocked.’’

Hugh Strickland, a fan so devoted to have set some kind of record by attending 339 straight Wake basketball games – home and away – looked up from the newspaper he was perusing.

“Oh that’s OK, coach,’’ Strickland replied. “I’m just going to sit here and read my paper until the varsity game starts.’’

It’s important to remember that there was a time – once upon a time – when one devoted to Wake basketball had not only the temerity, but the well-earned right to rib a fan, player or even coach of a rival ACC school – and get away with it.

“Good one,’’ Smith acknowledged with a grin.

It’s also important to remember that the occasion was an early-season tournament played from the 1970-71 season through the 1980-81 campaign called the Big Four Tournament. The coaches hated it, but the fans loved squaring off against their traditional rivals so early to start establishing bragging rights for the next three months.

The Big Four, at the time, was as select a group as there was in all of college basketball. To be in the Big Four meant that you not only played in the ACC, but were a member in good standing of the inner ring of the ACC.

If you don’t believe it, check out the first 17 seasons of ACC play. Teams from the Big Four – N.C. State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake – won 16 championships.

And while you’re at it, check out the next 13 seasons, when teams from the Big Four won 11 more titles.

To be a member of the Big Four meant you were the crème de la crème of college basketball.

Wake was never the scourge of the Big Four. Of those 16 championships before 1970-71, N.C. State won six, Duke and North Carolina won four each and Wake won two.

But Wake had a way of rising to the occasion against its blood rivals, and teams from N.C. State, Duke and North Carolina knew from experience to expect a game when they played the Deacons. Wake really made its mark in the aforementioned Big Four Tournament, winning the event four times and making the finals twice more.

In short, Wake was never the class of the Big Four, but there was no doubt that the Deacons belonged.

One doesn’t hear the term Big Four very often anymore in basketball, and for good reason. The sobriquet is as antiquated as another term used back then for ACC basketball as played by North Carolina schools, Tobacco Road.

Just how antiquated the term Big Four is happened to be on full display last night on ESPN, with the doubleheader of Duke playing at Wake and North Carolina playing at N.C. State. I watched both games intently, and was impressed by the play of three of those teams.

The Wolfpack didn’t have its best showing, and will struggle to beat anybody of note this season with Markell Johnson making only one of seven attempts from 3-point range. But the team clearly has a new spring in its step under second-year coach Kevin Keatts, enough so to be ranked No. 15 going into ACC play.

And unless I miss my bet, the Wolfpack will enter the final week of the regular season with at least a shot of earning a double bye at the ACC Tournament. I’ll also be surprised if either Duke or North Carolina are playing before Thursday in Charlotte.

All of which make the demise of Wake basketball that much harder to take for those of us old enough to remember who the Deacons once were and realize how far they’ve fallen. What we saw once again last night is that given the downward trajectory of the last eight (going on nine) seasons Wake is lucky to even belong to the ACC, much less an aggregate extolled enough to be called the Big Four.

Les Johns, to my mind, nailed his lede when he wrote in Demon Deacon Digest that “Duke played with its food a bit Tuesday night.’’ Les noted how the Blue Devils, hardly known for their 3-point eye, spent the first half launching 15 3-pointers and turning the ball over nine times.

And still led by eight at halftime.

Mike Krzyzewski hasn’t won 1,040 games and five national championships at Duke by being slow in the uptick, which rendered the adjustments made at halftime so thoroughly predictable. The message was clear: Take the ball to the rack and dare Wake to stop you.

Barely more than a minute into the second half – by which time Duke had scored four point-blank baskets on its first three possessions en route to a 50-36 lead – the game was over and settled. Unfortunately for the Deacons, the carnage continued.

The Blue Devils crossed mid-court with the basketball 36 times in the second half, and scored on 22 of those excursions. But here’s the real indictment against the defense as played by the Deacons.

Sixteen of those 22 successful possessions resulted in points scored from inside two-feet. And many of those were uncontested.

To get shredded by Duke is going to happen from time to time, even to good teams. The Blue Devils are that potent.

The problem at Wake is that it doesn’t take a Duke or North Carolina or N.C. State to eviscerate the Deacons’ defense. On a good night, even a Houston Baptist or Gardner-Webb can do it.

The bigger problem is that the inability to stop the other team from scoring has persisted from the day that Danny Manning became head coach before the 2014-15, infamously belying his boast that his program would be one that would “hang its hat on defense.’’

And as Conor O’Neill astutely noted in his game story for the Winston-Salem Journal, the Deacons’ defense – instead of improving – continues to regress dramatically.

Wake has never been ranked bv KenPom better than No. 125 in defensive efficiency. This season’s team, the fifth with Manning at the helm, was ranked No. 213 even before last night’s blood-letting.

Conor also pointed out how in three games against teams from Power Five conferences, Wake has been torched for 92 by Georgia Tech, 82 by Duke and 81 by Tennessee.

If there’s an explanation for the implosion of a once-proud program I have yet to hear it. Krzyzewski was asked on this week’s ACC teleconference leading into last night’s game why Manning was having such a hard time righting the Deacons’ ship in basketball.

“You should ask Coach Manning that,’’ Krzyzewski replied. “He’s on later.’’

Les Johns, to his credit, did exactly that to conclude last night’s post-game presser.

“What’s it going to take – micro-level – to get the Wake Forest program to where it can compete again with the Dukes of the world?’’

And Manning’s answer?

If you heard one, that makes one of us.

“We don’t have enough time,’’ Manning said, presumably meaning the amount of time it would take to answer the question. “There are a lot of different things that go into it. The bottom line is that when you step out on the court, you have to find a way. You’ve got to find a way.

“You have to be able to compete, and compete every possession. And I thought there were some possessions when we did a good job competing. But it’s got to be the mindset that ‘We’re going to win every possession.’

“And there were too many empty possessions for us tonight.’’

Hugh Strickland died 18 years ago and I still miss him, though I am lucky enough to know his son Gary – the long-time scorekeeper for Wake basketball – and his grandsons David, Michael and Scott. The one solace I have is Hugh didn’t live long enough to see what has become of his beloved Wake basketball, or have to listen to Danny Manning try to explain it away.

Wake Basketball: Who Cares?

One of the most significant figures of Wake basketball was sitting courtside today at Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavillion for the Deacons’ all-too-predictable 92-79 bellyflop into ACC play.

And sitting next to him was John Collins.

The commentators for the Fox Sports South telecast, my good buddy Wes Durham and analyst Cory Alexander, made much to do about Collins, and how well he’s playing his sophomore season for the Atlanta Hawks and how he visited the Deacons’ locker room for a halftime pep talk.

But truth is, Collins, the first and only Wake player to make first-team All-ACC since Chris Paul’s sophomore season of 2004-05, has presently done what he could do for the Deacons’ basketball fortunes. And it will be all he can do until he decides he has made enough money to plow some back into Wake’s basketball coffers.

It was the man sitting next to Collins who had a much bigger impact on the dire straits the Deacons find themselves, and, more important, what they intend to do about it. If you know Mit Shah, it’s probably by name only, the name that will adorn the $9 million showplace of a basketball complex being built as we speak on campus.

Shah is a 1991 graduate of Wake who walked on the tennis team, before taking on the world and winning hugely as a hotel magnate rich enough to donate more than $7 million to his alma mater. He’s also a minority owner of the Atlanta Hawks.

Shah was one of the influential boosters behind the hiring of Danny Manning before the 2014-15 season. And I, for one, won’t hold that against him. There were plenty of people at the time who thought the hiring of one of the great names in the history of college basketball was a gamble worth taking.

Yet I just had to wonder what was going through Shah’s bright mind as he watched the Deacons stumble to a pretty cut-and-dried loss to a Tech team picked to finish one spot ahead of them at 13th in the ACC preseason predictions. Surely, by now, he has concluded what is obvious for anyone to see.

Danny Manning is not the answer to the bottomless doldrums Wake finds itself in. If he were, we all would have seen that long before now.

Instead, what we saw today was a team that handled the ball like it was radio-active and played the kind of defense that would shame an over-40 team at the local Y. We knew Wake had a bad team. We saw just how bad today, and we’ll continue to see it as the meat-grinder of an ACC season grinds on.

The Yellow Jackets came into the game shooting 45 percent from the floor against a less-than-robust nonconference schedule and scoring 71 points a game. Wake played some man, it played some zone, and it pressed, none of which kept Tech from shooting 56 percent from the floor and scoring 20 points more than its average.

But final tally and shooting percentage only begin to tell the sad tale of where Wake basketball is today. As I’ve mentioned many times, I watch from home these days with a pad on my lap charting number of stops the Deacons get on defense – because I’ve long-since concluded porous defense is their most pressing and longstanding problem.

I actually had to check my figures with the play-by-play from the Wake Athletics website to make sure the Deacons’ defense was as abysmal as I had charted. Turns out it was worse.

Georgia Tech crossed midcourt with the basketball 42 times in the second half, and either scored or got fouled (or both) 29 times. And once the Yellow Jackets got to really rolling, there were rarely stopped.

The headline from the official Wake website says the Deacons’ rally fell short (I know, I know, whoever is responsible has to write something), but it’s hard to rally when the opponent is scoring every time down. Tech scored or got fouled (or both) the last nine times it had the ball, 13 of the last 14 times and 15 of the last 17.

The pattern I’ve noticed as that the Deacons’ defense gets more and more porous as the game wears on, which explains why Wake is as good a bet as any to finish dead last in the ACC – in Danny Manning’s fifth season as head coach.

The rank-and-file fans have been wise to the dumpster fire consuming their once proud program, but the problem is, any and all protestations are falling on deaf ears. Best anyone can tell, the man most responsible for the plight of all Wake athletics, Ron Wellman, simply no longer cares.

Wake can finish 12th, 14th, 10th and 14th in the ACC under the same coach while players leave in droves and the program is relegated to irrelevance, and what does Wellman do?

He extends Manning’s contract.

There’s been a report floating around for some time from Jeff Goodman of ESPN that Manning’s contract will run through the 2024-25 season and that its fully guaranteed to the tune of $18 million.

When asked, Wellman fell back on the usual dodge provided him by Wake’s status as a private institution.

“We do not comment on contract details,’’ Wellman said.

I ask you as fans of Wake basketball. Why do you care? What are you supposed to think when the current coach is losing game after game, and the man who hired him is not even commenting on reports that said coach is under contract through 2025?

Ron Wellman doesn’t care what a grizzled old sportswriter writes on his personal block after his retirement, nor should he.

On the other hand, Ron Wellman, by not addressing the current contract status of Danny Manning, is showing that he doesn’t care what you as the rank-and-file fan thinks.

But I am wondering what Mit Shah, a Wake trustee and CEO of the Noble Investment Group, is thinking along about now.

Because I know Ron Wellman cares about what Mit Shah is thinking.

He has around $7 million reasons to care.

A Wedding I’ll Never Forget

It’s in the eyes of others, we see who we are,

By staring in her shining eyes, he saw he was a star.

She saw something precious, she saw something right,

That gave her heart a’ flutter, and made her head a little light.

Happiness is a hard place to write from, or at least it always has been for me.

When I’m happy, I’m usually too busy enjoying the sensation to take the time to settle in and commit to the kind of work required to chronicle the moment. And writing, while fun, can be work.

All of which is a long-winded explanation of why you haven’t seen any posts from me in a while. For over the past week, this old boy has been as happy as I’ve ever been.

It’s the Glory of Love,

Sweet Love,

The one thing you never get too much of,

Is Love,

And that’s the Glory of Love.

Our daughter, Rebecca, married her beau Steve Kinsella on Saturday at the Arts Council in Durham. A grand and glorious and unforgettable time was had by all. Rebecca did pretty much all the planning for the occasion, and anyone lucky enough to be in attendance will attest that Rebecca out-did herself.

Which, for Rebecca, is harder to do than it is for most of us. I’m bad about bragging on my kids, but I’m confident in saying there are few people on this planet more together, more grounded, more competent, more organized, more understanding of what really means something in life – and what doesn’t – than one Rebecca Cooper Collins, 28, presently of Boston, Mass.

Like most folks they’d found heartache, like most folks they’d felt pain

Like most folks they were ever braced to have it all come around again,

But they saw in each other’s eyes, a light to shine when life gets rough,

And to tell them they would never have to live in a world without love.

The magical week began on Saturday, Dec. 22, when Rebecca and Steve rolled in from Boston, where Rebecca specializes in alternative energy ideas and applications for Eversource Energy (she’s out to save the planet – someone has to) and Steve is gearing up for the final semester of a two-year MBA program from Boston U.

They remained with us through Christmas, by which time we were joined by Tybee’s sister Kim from Chapel Hill. We know how to have a good time in our home, and, as always, we managed to hurt ourselves in the most rollicking and silly and good-time ways.

The love birds flew the coop for Fuqua Varina, where Steve’s parents John and Beth live, and we braced for the arrival of our son, Nate, and his family on their way east from Dallas. Sadly, it had been way too long since we had seen Nate and his bride Laura, but the visit was made all the more special by knowing it would be our grand daughter Isla’s first time ever in our home.

Isla is three, and turned out to be the fireball of light and joy and love we just knew she would be.

I had already resolved to not follow my usual instincts and put my old bearded face right in hers’ when she walked in the door. Tybee was only one of many to warn me not to scare the poor girl out of her wits before she even knew who we were.

But as it turned out, Isla stormed into our house like she owned the place – which of course she did. Nate and Laura had to drop off the rental car, and the whole time Isla was alone with Tybee and me, she just flitted around the house chattering, and singing and getting into everything a 3-year-old will get into.

She sings songs that she makes up, which tickles me in so many ways. Laura, by the way, is a songbird who performs regularly in musicals in and around the Dallas area. Nate is a percussionist with degrees from Eastman and a masters from SMU who at times is in the pit for Laura’s musicals, when he’s not teaching high school music or marching band (big in Texas) or playing with any number of orchestras or ensembles.

He sat in with the Dallas Wind Symphony for a recording that was nominated for a Grammy in 2018, so we kidded how he needed a business card reading Nate Collins, Grammy-nominated artist.

If there’s one thing I know, love’s the window to our soul,

It’s by looking deep inside our hearts, we find our heaven above.

And if you’re wondering about the meaning of anything,

Just remember the Glory of Love.

The wedding was an exceedingly tasteful, relatively contained affair involving somewhere around 80 of the dearest, most loving and beautiful people we’ve ever known. No one has a better family, and all of us from both sides, the Collins’ and the Kinsella’s rallied around the love birds to make it an occasion that could not have been more glorious and unforgettable.

There was, of course, an open bar and all kinds of dancing to the set list that Rebecca put together as only she could. Every song that came on I just shook my head and repeated “Oh, I love that song.’’

I had a couple of rough moments containing my pure joy, like when I escorted Rebecca to the altar, gave her and Steve big hugs and took my seat next to Tybee. And for the father-daughter dance, I had pretty much decided on Joe Cocker’s version of You Are So Beautiful, but as usual Rebecca was a step or two ahead of her old man.

“What about Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?, by Hank Williams,’’ Rebecca suggested. To know what that meant to me one has to know the special place Hank Williams has always had in our family – dating to his biggest fan ever, my mother Frances Cooper Collins. That’s why there was such loud oohing and aahing from my brothers Tom and Joe and their families when Hank’s whiskey-cured voice came over the speakers.

And not once did I step on Rebecca’s toes – at least not literally.

We gather together, to celebrate,

The love of Steve and Rebecca, and hear the sweet vows that they make,

Always look out for each other, always be the best of friends,

That’s the special kind of love, the kind that never ends.

The other rough moment came during my toast to the newly weds. Oh I didn’t have any trouble giving it. I was born for such occasions. But like I’ve said, I’m bad about bragging over my family and my difficulty was in containing all the reasons and explanations and stories of why Rebecca Cooper Collins is such a special person to a toast that would end sometime before the New Year began.

It was difficult, but somehow I managed. I almost began with “Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth,’’ but I didn’t think most of the guests would get the Lou Gehrig reference. And besides, that speech was about death. This occasion celebrated life.

So I just told the room what I felt, that my heart was busting with love and joy and happiness.

Happiness is a hard place to write from.

But it’s a joyful place in which to reside.

It’s the Glory of Love,

Sweet Love,

The one thing you never get to much of,

Is Love,

And that’s the Glory of Love.