It’s tough to label a December game a must-win for any major college basketball program, but with Wake Forest looking like a team destined to be on the proverbial bubble come NCAA Tournament selection time, the Demon Deacons really could use a victory Tuesday night at LSU.
Not too many people were looking at Wake Forest as a potential tournament team in Danny Manning’s second season in Winston-Salem, but he’s got the Deacs off to an 8-3 start and a victory against LSU could help solidify their resume a bit before diving into an extremely tough ACC schedule. Wake Forest opens conference play at Louisville followed by a home game against Duke. Those are hardly guaranteed losses, but coming off a loss to Xavier, the Demon Deacons also face the very real possibility of dropping four straight if they can’t come out of Baton Rouge with a victory.
That, in and of itself, is important for a young team’s psyche when few players on the roster have experience winning at this level. Wake Forest would be ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process just being in the mix for a tournament berth, but at this point a .500 or better record in conference play coupled with a few more quality victories would give the Deacs a decent shot at making the field.
But unless Wake Forest has a shockingly good run in the ACC, it will hardly be a lock and the trip to LSU looks like the kind of game that could very well be used to judge both teams later on. Wake’s non-conference resume is one of the more interesting in the game. The Deacons enter the game with an 8-3 record and picked up some potentially nice wins at the Maui Invitational, taking down Indiana and UCLA.
Losses to Vanderbilt and No. 6 Xavier are nothing to be ashamed of, but the early season setback at Richmond could come back to haunt the Deacons in March. Wake has developed a reputation for struggling on the road in recent years and it will be interesting to see how the selection committee judges close victories at Bucknell and Rutgers.
Frankly, what it really comes down to is the fact that 9-3 with a road win at LSU looks much, much better than 8-4 with a loss to a team that will struggle to make the tournament despite super freshman Ben Simmons leading the way.
But that’s part of the challenge for the Deacs. Simmons is capable of carrying the Tigers to victory on any given night, but hasn’t been great enough to make LSU unbeatable.
Wake Forest has an emerging star of its own with senior Devin Thomas averaging 16.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. The Demon Deacons will need a big effort from their 6-9 power forward against Simmons and the rest of the Tigers.
The Deacons have gone through the non-conference portion of their schedule a bit overlooked. Despite having a resume that is arguably as good as several teams in the bottom half of the AP Poll, including No. 25 UCLA, Wake Forest didn’t receive a vote this week.
They have an opportunity to really make a statement in the next two weeks and it begins in Baton Rouge.
With Simmons on the floor, people will be paying attention and a victory could be enough to open some eyes to the Demon Deacons. But a loss might make it easy to dismiss Wake Forest, particularly if UCLA and Indiana disappoint in their conferences.
No, this game doesn’t fall into the category of must-win, but it certainly has the potential to be the kind that becomes notable in the resurgence of a tradition-rich Wake Forest program.