After years of struggle, Wake Forest contending for NCAA bid
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest coach Danny Manning wants his Demon Deacons focused on nothing more than the game plan for each of their last two regular-season games. He also knows that's not easy with the program flirting with their first NCAA Tournament invitation in seven years.
The Demon Deacons (16-12, 7-9 Atlantic Coast Conference) are hovering on the bubble - good enough to play tough games with just about anybody, yet still searching for the kind of top-shelf win to push them over the line in what has already been a huge leap forward in Manning's third year. They'll get another chance Wednesday night against No. 8 Louisville in their regular-season home finale.
''Right now, we're still in the heat of the battle and there's still a lot of basketball left, regardless of what the (NCAA) conversation is right now,'' Manning said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. ''But it's conversation that you can't avoid.
''It's conversation that you pick up your phone and it's on your phone. You turn your TV on and it's on the TV. It's there. We understand that, we acknowledge that. But we've got to continue to do what we need to do get prepared and stay focused.''
Wake Forest passes the eye test as a tournament team. Sophomore big man John Collins has made himself an ACC player of the year contender by averaging 19.1 points and 9.8 rebounds while bringing an 11-game run of 20-point games - the longest in the ACC since the 2013-14 season - into Wednesday's visit from the Cardinals (23-6, 11-5).
They're rank 12th nationally in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency (119.8 points per 100 possessions), 33rd in KenPom's overall rankings and No. 46 in the RPI.
''Even in their losses,'' Louisville coach Rick Pitino said, ''they've scored in the high 80s and low 90s, so they're a very explosive basketball team. ... and Collins, is probably from where he was ranked in high school, as good a college basketball player as there is in the ACC.''
The problem is the Demon Deacons have struggled to close out games. They're 1-9 against RPI top-50 teams, with four losses coming by six or fewer points. Their best win came against now-No. 25 Miami, which is 37th in the RPI through Monday's games.
There have also been a couple of costly missed opportunities, most notably when Clemson had a game-ending 15-0 run to rally from 10 down in the final 5 minutes and beat Wake Forest in Winston-Salem on Dec. 31.
''Obviously it shows some of the games we lost are coming back to haunt us a little bit,'' Collins said. ''But it also shows us that we're still in the conversation. We're right there. It's in arm's reach. It's just a matter of us going out there and grabbing it.''
And that's a position the Demon Deacons haven't been in for years.
Wake Forest last went to the NCAA Tournament in 2010 under Dino Gaudio. Before this season, the Demon Deacons hadn't won more than six league games since. They now have as many league wins as they did in Manning's first two seasons combined, including a 2-16 mark last year.
Wake Forest also ended a three-year, 25-game road ACC skid in January at North Carolina State.
''You don't know until you know,'' Manning said of young players maturing through a tough ACC schedule. ''And that's the tough part and the beauty of a young team. A lot of teams we played early on this year, people were like, `Oh, they won't be able to play or compete.'
''And we do. Not to the extent that we've wanted, because there were some of those games we didn't win. But we'll go out and compete against anybody.''
While Demon Deacons know they've taken a big step, Collins said the players have ''tunnel vision'' about making the NCAAs instead of reviewing what they've already accomplished.
''We look at the tournament as the ultimate goal,'' Collins said. ''We see that as the thing we look to accomplish for this year and proved that we have improved as much as the numbers show. But we want it for ourselves.''
AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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