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Wake Forest’s upward mobility limited by strength of ACC

Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire

The ACC is surely shaping up to be a juggernaut this season, since as many as three-fourths of the league have NCAA Tournament aspirations.

Outside of Georgia Tech and Boston College likely taking up the cellar spots this season, a few teams in the middle of the pack remain in limbo in terms of which way their seasons can go.

One such team that particularly rings true for is Danny Manning’s Wake Forest program.

There is some talent that Manning has assembled in Winston-Salem, but talent won’t solely define the Demon Deacons this season. The strength of the ACC will limit Wake Forest’s mobility.

If composing a power ranking list of teams in the ACC, one would have to put Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Miami, Clemson, Pittsburgh, Florida State and North Carolina State ahead of Wake Forest.

Therein lies the major roadblock facing Manning and the Demon Deacons.

The Demon Deacons will field a competitive teama team that could potentially do damage in any other conference, like say, the SECbut in the loaded ACC, Wake Forest will be exposed.

After all, this team that beat Indiana, UCLA, LSU and Arkansas in the non-conference portion of its schedule last season. The Demon Deacons then came undone in the ACC, losing several close games while never finding their footing in conference play.

The end result was just two conference wins for Wake Forest and an 11-20 overall record. However, the eye test revealed a team that had some solid pieces to work with.

Manning loses the services of Devin Thomas and Codi Miller-McIntyre, but he does bring back three starters and most of his bench rotation.

Back for the Demon Deacons is All-ACC Freshman Team member Bryant Crawford.

Crawford’s upside is something Demon Deacon fans can rally around.

Crawford was a revelation for Manning last season en route to averaging 13.8 points and a team-leading 4.4 assists per game, while shooting 34.8 percent from three-point range. He demonstrated a real knack for finding the basket in his freshman campaign.

With an explosive first step, Crawford is almost impossible to stop when he is attacking the basket. Crawford also owns a smooth, sweet long-range shooting stroke. He may be in line for a breakout season.

In short, Crawford could be a cornerstone player for Manning.

Crawford talked about his role as a leader and trusting the process laid out by Manning with Winston-Salem Journal‘s Scott Hamilton recently:

“We’ve just got to compete,” said Crawford, who made the All-ACC Freshman Team after leading the league’s freshmen in assists (4.4) and steals (1.7). “As a team this year, we’ve just got to trust in him. We’re a young group of guys, but we’re also talented and I feel like we can compete with anybody in the country.”

Also back for Wake Forest are junior combo guard Mitchell Wilbekin (7.3 points and 1.4 assists per game) and junior power forward Konstantinos Mitoglou (9.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game).

While not stars by any stretch, Wilbekin and Mitoglou are suitable role players who will complement Crawford well.

Manning is also welcoming in a solid recruiting class that features four three-star recruits, highlighted by center Samuel Japhet-Mathias. Legacy commit Brandon Childress (son of Wake forest great Randolph Childress) is someone to watch.

Also new to the Demon Deacons is Milwaukee grad transfer Austin Arians, who averaged 11.4 points and 3.8 rebounds per game last season with the Panthers. He will add toughness in the paint and compensate for Thomas’s departure.

To successfully compete in the ACC, the Demon Deacons have to recruit at an elite level and Manning is doing an admirable job on that front. He already has reeled in class of 2017 four-star shooting guard Chaundee Brown.

He is definitely moving the program in the right direction,

Again, this is a good team buoyed by Crawford, who might be set for stardom. The odds of success are simply stacked against Manning this season.

It’s not an indictment of how Manning is shaping his roster or how he manipulates Xs and Os. It is more about the teams he and his players are competing against.

Wake Forest will ultimately be doomed this season by external circumstances and not internal factors. That’s quite okay for Manning, who is only in his third season at Wake Forest after he took Tulsa to the NCAA Tournament in just two years on the job.

Give Manning some time and he’ll have a team that will contend for an NCAA Tournament bid. It just may not be this season, but as already implied, that’s really no fault of his own.

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