Luke DeCock

Wake Forest, reeling from unexpected departures, staggers backward

Duke forward Javin DeLaurier (12) goes a for a steal from Wake Forest guard Brandon Childress (0) during the first half.
Duke forward Javin DeLaurier (12) goes a for a steal from Wake Forest guard Brandon Childress (0) during the first half. cliddy@newsobserver.com

John Collins stood up when prompted and stepped onto the court, waving to all sides of the crowd. As happy as the Wake Forest fans were to see him, it was bittersweet. With Collins actually on the court, and not sitting beside it, the Demon Deacons might have had a chance against Duke on Tuesday.

Instead, he reclined back into his seat next to the Wake bench alongside uber-booster Mit Shah -- a minority owner of the Atlanta Hawks, where Collins now plays instead -- and watched as Wake Forest lost to Duke for the second time in 11 days, 84-70.

A year ago, with Collins and Dinos Mitoglou, Wake came within a clutch Luke Kennard shot of beating Duke on this court. A year later, with Collins unexpectedly gone to the NBA and Mitoglou unexpectedly gone back to Greece for big pro bucks, what was supposed to be Wake Forest's breakthrough season under Danny Manning has instead gone completely sideways: below .500, 1-7 in the ACC and confirming Tuesday plans for Brooklyn.

There are only a few ACC teams that could weather the unexpected loss of two key starters – like Duke, which added the accelerating Marvin Bagley III to its recruiting class in August – and Wake Forest was and is clearly not among them.

Because Manning never could have foreseen Collins getting so good, so fast, let alone the Greek Deac hearing the sound of the Euros that weren't piling up in his bank account as long as he was still at Wake, there's a sense that the Wake Forest coach has a free pass for this season, no matter what happens.

But what's happening isn't pretty, and that has put pressure on Manning regardless of what happened in the offseason.

The Deacons are now 0-for-the-Triangle, and each loss has been, objectively, worse than the last. It started with the close loss (and collapse) in Chapel Hill, then a loss at Duke which the Blue Devils led by 27 late before the bench gave a few points back, then the loss (and collapse) in Raleigh. At least all of those were on the road.

At home Tuesday, Wake Forest committed a season-high 21 turnovers against a Duke team not exactly renowned for its pressure defense, although the Blue Devils have certainly shown recent improvement in that department. (This is, after all, the same Wake Forest team that committed a critical 10-second violation against N.C. State with three point guards on the floor.)

Manning's lineups don't hold up to analytic scrutiny, the Deacons' late-game implosions – against Tennessee, North Carolina and N.C. State – are chronic and even without Collins and Mitoglou the Deacons should still have enough talent to be better than this, although they were missing Keyshawn Woods on Tuesday.

With Doral Moore and Olivier Sarr, the Deacons are one of the rare teams capable of overpowering Duke inside, and Moore was 9-for-9 with 12 rebounds before Duke fouled him out. Bryant Crawford can be an explosive scorer, although he wasn't Tuesday, and freshman Chaundee Brown looks like he could be an explosive scorer if he ever got enough playing time. At times, it's almost like he gets forgotten on the bench. Tuesday, with Woods out, he looked terrific.

In short: Wake is considerably less than the sum of its pieces, even if it doesn't have all the pieces it thought it would have. The frustration is real.

At the same time, it's hard to imagine Wake Forest making a change, nor would it make sense. The scars of the Jeff Bzdelik misadventure aren't fully healed. A little patience and stability won't hurt at this point. There's enough in Manning's resume, at Tulsa and as an assistant at Kansas, to suggest he knows how to recruit and build a program, and that's certainly the direction Wake Forest was headed when last season ended.

Collins was a big part of that, an impact player identified, recruited and developed – too well, as it turned out for Manning and Wake Forest. The Hawks forward ended up in an extended conversation with Mike Krzyzewski after the game as Krzyzewski reached the end of the handshake line, and one can imagine how glad the Duke coach was to encounter Collins then instead of dealing with him for the previous 40 minutes.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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