A collection of players, as Wake spent January proving, does not in itself constitute a team.
January is an interminable month, made even more so this year for anybody wondering when the Wake basketball team would ever live up to its billing by playing like an actual team. The answer finally came last night, only a couple of hours before the calendar turned to February.
The Deacons played like a team to beat Florida State 76-72 last night at Joel Coliseum, snapping a seven-game losing streak dating to a Jan. 3 home victory over Syracuse.
They didn’t play like a great team, or even necessarily like a really good team. Their offense produced only four field-goal attempts for Doral Moore, a 7-1 center shooting 72 percent from the floor and their defense had no answer for power forward Phil Cofer, who poured in 23 points.
And when they had a chance to make things easier for themselves down the stretch, they declined. Bryant Crawford, who makes 89 percent of his free throws, missed two in a row with 3:42 left and freshman Olivier Sarr missed a pair 30 seconds later.
But they did recover to make five of their final six. And that proved to be the difference when the Seminoles, for some reason coach Leonard Hamilton himself had to be wondering about, kept sending the Deacons to the line over the final three minutes.
That’s the whole point of this piece. A team doesn’t always have to play great. And no team ever plays a perfect game. But if a team plays like a team – for all its flaws – it more times than not stands a chance to win.
Other teams will make mistakes, if given the chance. A collection of players rarely gives the opponent that chance. A team will.
Crawford proved once again how indispensable he is to the Deacons’ fortunes. He still made a blind pass or two that resulted in fast-break layups for the Seminoles, and he did whiff on the two aforementioned free throws with 3:42 to go.
But just like no team ever plays perfect basketball, nor does any one player. And on this night, Crawford, playing under control, was a critical asset for Wake while contributing 19 points, 7 assists and 3 rebounds.
He more closely resembled the Bryant Crawford who finished the regular-season last March with a flourish instead of the Bryant Crawford who spent his his previous three games missing 20 of 31 shots from the floor and committing 20 turnovers while contributing only 13 assists – all while barking at teammates when bad, inevitably, slid into worse.
Last night, while he was coming out of a timeout, I could have sworn I saw him actually smile. It was something I hadn’t personally seen in awhile, and the smile looked good on him.
The team statistics that should be most heartening to any Wake fan have to be the 15 assists on 25 made field goals and the 28 free throws the Deacons attempted. In the loss at Lousville, Wake had 12 assists on 29 field goals and attempted 16 free throws. In the loss at Duke, it had 11 assists on 27 field goals and attempted 13 free throws.
The improved ratio of assists to field goals at least suggested that the ball was moving better last night, and indeed, it appeared to be. And the 28 free throws attempted at least suggested that the Deacons were making an effort to drive the ball to the basket instead of relying on jump shots.
Those are all signs that the message coach Danny Manning has to be preaching to his team, on this night at least, finally got through. Whether it will again fall on deaf ears this Saturday against Clemson remains to be seen.
And incidentally, anyone wondering about the physical state of senior guard Mitchell Wilbekin – although at this point I don’t know why one would – your guess is as good as mine. The only mention of Wilbekin’s injury in the pregame notes is that Wilbekin missed the Louisville game “due to injury.’’
Wilbekin showed up at Louisville wearing a boot on his left foot and relying on crutches. The release did not reveal the nature of his injury, or when he might return.