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Will Wake Forest basketball be undefeated heading into conference play?

Danny Manning’s team faces a lot of question marks entering next season. However, the Deacons also face a non-conference schedule that could allow them to be undefeated entering conference play.

In Manning’s three seasons, Wake Forest has played a relatively difficult non-conference schedule each year. Each season has featured at least three road games mixed with some neutral site matchups.

The road games have included Arkansas, Bucknell, Rutgers, LSU, Xavier and Northwestern. The neutral site games have included Florida, Indiana, Vanderbilt, UCLA and Villanova.

Manning’s teams have fared pretty well, going 7-5, 9-3 and 8-3. Last season, the tougher schedule may have helped push the Deacons into the NCAA Tournament when they were sitting right on the bubble, although they lost to the top teams: Villanova, Northwestern and Xavier.

This year, the Deacons will play only two road games, at Charlotte and at Coastal Carolina. Neither team finished in the top 200 of the rankings last season. Both games are in December with the Coastal Carolina game being late enough that the students will have gone home for break.

Wake Forest’s holiday tournament also will be a step back in competition. The past two seasons in Charleston and Maui led to matchups against three ranked teams and some other tough games. This year’s Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands won’t be at that same level.

The Deacons likely would face Colorado in the second round and Houston in the title game. Both teams lost in the first round of the NIT last season. Colorado lost its top two scorers, including Derrick White, a first-round NBA pick. Houston lost Damyean Dotson as an NBA second-round pick and will be relying on a couple JUCO transfers to rebuild on the inside.

Because the Skip Prosser Classic rotates with two years on and two years off, the Deacons won’t have a matchup with Xavier this season. In the ACC-Big 10 challenge, Wake Forest replaces a road game with Northwestern, a team good enough to win an NCAA Tournament game and take Gonzaga to the wire, with Illinois at the Joel Coliseum.

The Illini won 20 games last season and lost in the NIT quarterfinals, but they lose four of their top five scorers and changed coaches. They did pick up Mark Alstork of Wright State, a player Manning also was pursuing as a graduate transfer.

The only other threat appears to be a home matchup against Tennessee right before the ACC season begins. The Volunteers were a .500 team last year and lost their leading scorer. They aren’t very big but Rick Barnes teams are always tough.

The downside to playing an easier schedule is that if the Deacons stumble a couple of times, they won’t have strength of schedule to fall back on with the NCAA committee. It will put more pressure on their ACC play.

However, If Manning can get his rotation set and his newcomers contributing right away, the Deacons have a chance to run the table. That would give them an easier road to a 20-win season, which becomes tough for the NCAA to ignore.

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