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Wake Forest looks to next year after another 20-loss finish

March 7, 2018

Wake Forest coach Danny Manning reacts to a call by an official during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Syracuse in the Atlantic Coast Conference men's tournament Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in New York. Syracuse won 73-64. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Wake Forest had serious trouble replacing two players who left school early. As a result, another Demon Deacons’ season ended early.

The Demon Deacons wrapped up a disappointing season Tuesday night with a 73-64 loss to Syracuse in the first round of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.

It brought to a close a year that seemed derailed before it even began, and the convenient scapegoats were the early departures of John Collins to the NBA and Dinos Mitoglou to a professional team in his native Greece.

The season began with home losses to mid-major programs Georgia Southern and Liberty, ended with three consecutive losses and included far too few high points — but way too many blown leads — in between.

It all added up to Wake Forest’s second 11-20 finish in three years. The Demon Deacons were 4-14 in league play, finishing ahead of only winless Pittsburgh in the standings.

“We lose a couple guys that are doing fairly well at the professional level right now that were underclassmen, and when we started out the season, we didn’t get off to a good start, and we battled back,” coach Danny Manning said.

Wake Forest has had just five 20-loss seasons in its 112-year history, and three of them have come in the past eight years. Two belong to Manning, who in his four years at the school also had a 19-loss blemish on his resume from 2014-15 to go along with last year’s NCAA Tournament appearance.

And the struggles of this team made last year’s trip to the First Four feel much more distant.

That team was led by Collins, an all-ACC selection who was taken by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the NBA Draft. Mitoglou, a forward with deft outside touch and averaged 8.9 points, was a late departure, deciding over the summer to remain in Greece and play pro ball.

Wake Forest went to a four-guard lineup at times to take advantage of this team’s higher numbers in the backcourt. Bryant Crawford averaged 16.7 points this season, but also had five games with at least six turnovers — and the team lost all five.

This team loses only two scholarship seniors — graduate transfer Terrence Thompson and multi-year starting guard Mitchell Wilbekin — but the key questions this offseason will be whether any of the nine players who could be back instead opt to transfer. And if there is further attrition, who does Manning bring in?

Wake Forest has the nation’s 19th-best incoming recruiting class, according to Scout.com, and Chaundee Brown — the school’s highest-rated recruit in a decade — will be a sophomore after struggling at times to remain on the court during his first season.

The Demon Deacons had the league’s worst defense, allowing 74.4 points per game, and ranked next-to-last in the league with a turnover margin of minus-1.1.

And the lasting memory of this season might be all those late-game fades and struggles to close out wins.

They gave up game-ending runs of 13-0 in a loss to Tennessee , 8-0 in losing at North Carolina and 11-0 in a loss at N.C. State . And they went 5 minutes between field goals down the stretch of a tight home loss to Clemson.

“We got to conference play, and we couldn’t get over the hump in quite a few ballgames,” Manning said. “We put ourselves in situations to have some success. In most of those games in league play we had the lead at some point in the second half, we just weren’t able to finish ballgames.”

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