‘Tis the season for giving, and Danny Manning — like so many coaches — has a wish list heading into the new year and conference play.
Let’s take a look at what kind of gifts Manning might be looking for:
A win over Tennessee
While the entire ACC season sits ahead, no game may be bigger than the Deacons’ last non-conference matchup — a home game against Tennessee. The Volunteers rank 11th in ESPN’s RPI tool, and they are Manning’s last chance to post a pre-ACC victory that would impress the tournament committee.
We previously outlined the issues the Deacons caused themselves with a slow start to the season, but things have only become worse. The Deacons’ best victory was over Illinois, but the Illini lost four of its next six and are No. 172 in the RPI. Wake Forest only owns one win over a top 150 team (UNC Greensboro at 130) and has two losses to teams ranked in the 200s (Liberty and Drake).
Unless the Deacons can dominate in the ACC, they’ll need a victory over Tennessee at the end of the season.
The best of Doral Moore and Chaundee Brown
Moore and Brown were both unknowns coming into the season: Moore because he hadn’t shown much in his first two seasons, and Brown because he was a freshman. But both have shown flashes of brilliance through the first half of the season. Manning needs the best of both to shine through in the second half.
Moore is shooting 85 percent from the field with three double-doubles. He also has four other games of double-figure points and at least six rebounds. But he also has games like two points and five fouls against Charlotte and six points and four fouls against Houston.
Can Moore continue to be effective against bigger and better athletes? If not, the Deacons will be reduced to just 3-point shooting, which was a disaster in the first few games.
Brown started strong, averaging 16.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in three of his first four games while averaging 30 minutes a game. But he hasn’t played more than 19 minutes a game since, including missing one game with a foot injury.
Brown hasn’t posted more than nine points or five rebounds in a game since the first four, and Manning hasn’t been clear about whether the lack of playing time is related to Brown’s foot or his play. Brown also stopped shooting 3-pointers, firing 22 in his first four games and only 11 in the next seven.
The Deacons need the best of Brown’s game on both ends if they’re going to compete in the ACC.
A clearer frontcourt reserve picture
Manning would love to get a better understanding of how to use Olivier Sarr, Donovan Mitchell and Melo Eggleston. So far, he’s seen a variety of minutes and contributions from each, but hasn’t settled into anything consistent.
The 6-foot-11 Sarr has played both in place of Moore and alongside him. He’s had a variety of small wins, such as seven points and seven rebounds against Charlotte, eight points against Coastal Carolina and three blocks and three assists against Quinnipiac. The problem is that he hasn’t put any of those together with consistency.
Mitchell, who basically didn’t play as a freshman, struggled at the start of this season with turnovers and fouls. But with playing time, he settled down. He can provide a stretch element that the other big men can’t — 7-of-10 on 3-pointers — but he still looks raw too often.
Eggleston, a 6-foot-8 freshman wing, has only seen playing time recently. He’s produced in bursts, like six points against Richmond and six rebounds and two blocks against Army.
Manning will definitely need Sarr to play major minutes against ACC teams, especially if Moore is in foul trouble. But the Deacons would be much better if Manning can figure out how to fit in Mitchell and Eggleston.
Continuing the rebounding improvement
Manning’s big men are either slow (Moore), undersized (Terrence Thompson) or soft (everyone else). That’s led to problems on the boards. The Deacons have been outrebounded in four games and were minus-13 on the boards through the first seven games.
In the last four, however, the Deacons are plus-41. Manning has found increased contributions from Sarr, Eggleston and even guard Mitchell Wilbekin, who had seven against Coastal Carolina.
But the Deacons will have to prove it against bigger and better frontlines, and the fact that they’re playing more zone, which is a more difficult rebounding defense, isn’t helping.
Find a way to defend the 3-pointer
The Deacons have been terrible on the perimeter, ranking No. 326 in 3-point field-goal defense. Four opponents have shot at least 50 percent from long range. Manning finally has added a zone — after years of strict man-to-man — but that’s as much to keep Moore out of foul trouble as it is related to the 3-point line.
With a mostly perimeter-oriented lineup, it doesn’t make much sense that the Deacons can’t defend the outside. But defense takes communication and anticipation to make rotations, and it also takes determination to fight through screens and defend pick and rolls. The Deacons have struggled to do any of that during Manning’s tenure.
Perhaps a continuing shot-blocking presence from Moore and Sarr will allow the Deacons to take more chances on closeouts. Perhaps the young players will understand how to rotate and defend picks, or Manning will find the right combination.
He better hurry because Tennessee and North Carolina (the Deacons’ first ACC opponent) are both ranked third in their conferences in 3-point percentage.
Continued hot shooting
The one thing the Deacons have figured out how to do under Manning is score. But that left them early in the season. Without John Collins in the middle, Wake Forest spent a lot of time running around the perimeter and chucking up shots. During the first five games, the Deacons averaged 73.6 points on 42.6 percent shooting.
But Manning retooled the offense, adding more pick-and-rolls and emphasizing Moore in the middle. The Deacons now have scored at least 80 points in six straight games, averaging 86 over that stretch while shooting 54.2 percent from the field.
Even with the slow start, Wake Forest ranked 53rd in the country in 3-point shooting and 77th in scoring.
Since we’re not sure whether the Deacons can get significantly better on defense or the backboards, they’d better keep scoring. Last year, an outstanding offense was enough — despite a terrible defense — to get the Deacons to the NCAA Tournament. If they have a shot to return this season, it likely will again come because they can outscore other teams.