Wake Forest finally returned to the NCAA Tournament. Now the challenge for the Demon Deacons is to stick around for a while once they get there.
It was a memorable turnaround season in Danny Manning's third year at the helm.
- Wake Forest made its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010.
- Sophomore big man John Collins matured from a solid contributor to Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year candidate.
The run ended Tuesday night with a 95-88 loss to Kansas State in the First Four.
''All those lessons that we went through in non-conference helped us get to this point, helped us finish our ACC season strong, strong enough to get an opportunity to be a part of this,'' Manning said. ''But still disappointing to not come away with the desired outcome that we wanted.''
The biggest question now is whether it was also the last college game for the 6-foot-10 Collins, who declined to address his future plans immediately after the loss. He increased his scoring average by nearly 12 points per game this season, to 19.2, and had a late-season string of 12 straight games with at least 20 points.
If he returns, the Demon Deacons could enter next season in the upper half of arguably the nation's toughest conference. If Collins doesn't return, Wake Forest still should have enough offensive weapons that it would be reasonable to expect another tournament appearance.
Either way, they'll have to address the defense.
Wake Forest allowed at least 90 points in six games - all losses - and simply got outscored in a handful of games, most notably a 99-94 loss at then-No. 12 Duke in February. The Demon Deacons allowed Kansas State to shoot 66 percent - its highest percentage in 20 years - and make 81 percent of its 2-point attempts.
''We're a team that we need to get better defensively, rebounding the ball, staying in front of the basketball, and hopefully we can continue to be as efficient as we are offensively,'' Manning said. ''But we know we've got to get better on the other side.''
Only one of Wake Forest's top seven scorers - graduate transfer Austin Arians (8.5 ppg) - is a senior. Guards Bryant Crawford (16.2 ppg) and Keyshawn Woods (12.5) and stretch forward Dinos Mitoglou (8.9) shape up as some other top options from that group.
So, even if Collins turns pro, the Wake Forest program is in much better shape than it had been earlier in this decade.
The Demon Deacons' only winning season between 2010-11 and last year came in 2014 - when they finished 17-16 and then fired Jeff Bzdelik after the fourth season of his mostly unremarkable tenure at the school. They brought in Manning that offseason, and after going 13-19 in his first season and 11-20 last year, he led them to a 19-14 finish that was marked by an upset of No. 8 Louisville that helped put them in the tournament.
Now that they seem to be in position to get the tournament, the Demon Deacons need to win a few games there. Wake Forest has made it to the second weekend only once since Tim Duncan was on campus in the mid-1990s, and that was in 2004 in Chris Paul's next-to-last season.
''I'm proud of the effort that these young men have displayed time in and time over in practice,'' Manning said. ''They've come in every day with great attitude, great energy, and we continued to improve throughout the season. And I think that's a testament to the desire and the character of the young men that we have in our program.''
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