New ACC coaches -- Wake Forest's Danny Manning, Virginia Tech's Buzz Williams, Boston College's Jim Christian and Louisville's Rick Pitino -- face uphill battles in one of the strongest conferences in college basketball.
CHARLOTTE -- Jim Christian installed a giant “Identity Board” in the Boston College basketball facility as part of his preparation for his first season as the Eagles’ coach. The board has every player’s name on it along with a spot to mark how many “Identity Plays” each of them makes throughout the season. The goal is, as a team, to make 16-20 of those plays every day, in both games and practices. Those are the plays that Christian wants to define his team. If the Eagles don’t make those 16-20 plays, they have to run.
Identity Plays are things like boxing out, making the extra pass, diving on the floor for a loose ball or getting back in transition. They’re the little things that don’t appear in the stat sheet, and they’re the sort of plays Boston College hasn’t been making the past few seasons before Christian was hired last spring to replace the fired Steve Donahue, who went just 54-76 in his four seasons in Chestnut Hill.
“That’s the hardest part of the job,” Christian said during the ACC’s Operation Basketball on Wednesday, “is, for lack of a better term, to fight the indifference around Boston College basketball. I’ve said that a ton. It started with our own team. When you lose that many games there’s indifference. Is it worth it? Then it’s on your own campus where your team hasn’t been good so your student body is indifferent towards basketball. You get this mentality of, here’s where we are, we’re never coming out of it. You’ve just got to attack it every day.”
That’s the same task facing the ACC’s other new coaches this season, each of whom took over a downtrodden program. Buzz Williams replaced James Johnson at Virginia Tech, which finished last in the league in 2013-14 with a 2-16 conference mark, and Danny Manning has taken over at Wake Forest for Jeff Bzdelik, whose 17-16 record a year ago was the best of his four seasons with the Demon Deacons.
In a league that features 10 teams in the top 60 of the SI.com's preseason predictions and four Hall of Fame coaches – Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and, now, Louisville’s Rick Pitino – the ACC’s trio of new leaders may have a hard time getting headlines and, especially, wins in a conference that Buzz Williams says is “the best league in the world that’s not the NBA.”
The Deacons (12th), Eagles (14th) and Hokies (15th) occupy three of the bottom four spots in the ACC preseason coaches’ poll. At Wake Forest, Manning is entering just his third year as a head coach after spending the previous two seasons at Tulsa, but he did lead the Golden Hurricane to the NCAA tournament a year ago. His resume as a player is much more extensive: three-time Big Eight player of the year awards at Kansas, two-time All-America, 1988 Wooden and Naismith award winner, Final Four Most Outstanding Player, 1988 national champion, No. 1 pick in the ’88 NBA draft, NBA Sixth Man of the Year, NBA All-Star.
Wake Forest never came anywhere close to the NCAA tournament under Bzdelik, and while the 48-year-old Manning may not have the coaching seasoning of his fellow fresh faces, he hopes his experience on the court can pay dividends with his new players. He has said repeatedly he’s able to use his various roles during his career in uniform – as a starter, as a sixth man, as an injured player, as a guy who didn’t play – to identify with almost every player on some level even if he doesn’t know exactly what they’re feeling. It’s paid off so far on the recruiting trail, with Wake Forest landing two four-star players in the 2015 class.
But merely relating – and getting players to buy in – isn’t enough.
“There are no moral victories in our sport,” Manning said. “Moral victories, to me, help get you fired.”
Williams, 42, was in no danger of that at Marquette despite going 17-15 last year, but he left for Blacksburg anyway in one of the most stunning coaching moves in recent memory. He won 22 or more games in each of his first five seasons with the Golden Eagles and has never finished worse than .500 in conference play as a head coach at either New Orleans or Marquette. Williams took the Golden Eagles to an Elite Eight and two other Sweet 16s in his six seasons in Milwaukee and now leads a program that has only been to one Elite Eight in its history, a 71-66 overtime loss to Dayton in 1967. Virginia Tech has been to just eight NCAA tournaments overall, none since 2007.
When asked about taking over a program that was in the “second half” of the ACC, Williams quickly clarified with where he perceived Virginia Tech to be: “Bottom.” He also said that part of what was appealing “in a demented way” about taking over the Hokies was that they are at the bottom.
Eventually the reality for the newcomers is that the move out of the basement has to come sooner rather than later, and improvement may not always be noticeable enough or fast enough.
“That’s what makes it so hard,” Williams said. “You can make tons of improvement maybe in every facet of your program and still finish 11th and you want to be able to quantify like ‘hey two years ago we were over here and now look at where we’re at,’ but to the casual observer [it’s] like ‘well you still finished 6-12. That still sucks.’ It’s millions and millions of miles that may not always be available for everyone to see because it’s really hard to make those jumps.”
A jump was also on Manning’s mind Wednesday, and not just the kind that will make the Demon Deacons a Tobacco Road force once again.
“If you jump out there on the freeway,” Manning said, “you better start moving or you’re going to get run over.”