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.