Patience, not ‘Miracles’ at work as Manning rebuilds Wake Forest

Danny Manning, who took Tulsa to the NCAA tournament a year ago, is 13-16 overall and 5-11 in ACC play in his first season at Wake Forest.

Geoff Burke/Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

A one-point lead with 5:44 to go over the No. 5 team in the country, then a two-point lead with 5:47 to go over the No. 2 team in the country.

First-year Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning opened a lot of eyes nationally with the way his team performed in a four-day span against the league’s upper echelon, Louisville and Duke. But all he saw after the final seconds ticked off on Jan. 7 was an 8-8 overall record and 0-3 in ACC play.

Two more losses. He didn’t care by how much or how good his team looked doing it.

When asked if it was encouraging to "hang" with the Cardinals and Blue Devils in the postgame new conference, he didn’t even let the hint of a smile cross his face. If anything, the question seemed to annoy him.

"We lost," he said. "You compete to win, that’s the bottom line. We have to find ways to get the desired result that we want. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, it doesn’t matter where we’re playing — every time we step out on the court, we want to win."

There’s a lot of talk about changing a culture when a new coach is hired anywhere. For Manning, the former Naismith Player of the Year in 1988 at Kansas and No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, the competitive fire burns deeply within him. He wants to lay a foundation that will last for many years in Winston-Salem, and that will take time, but he also wants to win. Badly.

When he and his staff arrived in the spring of 2014, he knew it had to start in practice.

"We get in the game and my whole mindset is we’ve got to figure out a way to win the game. We can address whatever we need to address the next day in practice. But in practice, I want guys to be uncomfortable. I want to take them out of their comfort zone, and kind of go from there," Manning said, sitting in his cushy office chair as sunlight streamed in his windows, illuminating an impeccably-organized space — particularly for a head coach.

Every Wake Forest practice under Manning begins with shell drills, pitting offense against defense. It’s pretty simple; on-ball defense, help-side defense, denial defense (one pass away) are all covered, and it’s all relatively basic.

At one point this season during practice, Manning wasn’t satisfied with it. So he walked off to the sideline and grabbed a folding chair, then brought it back out and calmly settled into it, crossing one of his long legs on his 6-foot-10 frame over the other one.

"It was at a point where we’d gone over it enough, and we knew what we were supposed to be doing," Manning said. "That particular day, we weren’t doing it the way that we needed to. So ‘We can go hard and short, or we can go long. You guys can control that’.

"That day, they wanted to go a little bit longer than normal."

His players looked around at each other, and at assistant coach Randolph Childress — one of the best players in Wake Forest history, and the only holdover from the previous coaching staff — as if to say, ‘Is he serious?’

"We’re looking around like ‘Yeah, he’s serious’," Childress said.

Manning had done it before at his only other previous head coaching stop — he spent two seasons at Tulsa, in 2012-13 and 2013-14 — but he doesn’t see it as a gimmick.

"I just sit down and get comfortable because we’re going to be there a little bit longer," Manning said with a wry smile.

Manning cuts an imposing figure, and even though he’s nearly 12 years removed from a 15-year NBA career, he looks like he could still give a team some productive minutes. He almost always towers over opposing coaches as he chats with them before games or in the postgame handshake.

He speaks softly — both in volume and in tone — and succinctly, refusing to waste words with the media or even with his team. He doesn’t want to waste time, of which he has so precious little. But he demands a certain standard, and he’ll stay until his team meets it. Which is why when he is dissatisfied with shell drills, all he has to do is go get the chair.

"It’s like a kid who knows he’s about to get a spanking and his parents went and got the belt and they’re like ‘What in the world? I’m about to get punished.’ It’s like, ‘Is he going to — the chair? No. Wait a — no. NO! Hold on, hold on, hold on coach. COME ON GUYS!’ Then you get leadership. When he goes to get that chair and sit down, we’ve got leadership on the team at that point ," Childress said, laughing.

"He will sit there and kick his legs up to let you know we’re going to be here awhile. So either you do it or — yeah. He’ll get the chair. When he sits down, wow. Yeah, that’s a bad sign."

That’s the foundation upon which Manning wants to build this Wake Forest program. In his two years at Tulsa, yes, his team significantly improved each year he was there by most metrics, going from 17-16 his first year to 23-13 his second. Tulsa made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003 last season, losing to UCLA in the second round.

His Tulsa team also went from 137th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings in 2013 to 30th in 2014.

He was happy there. But when Wake Forest reached out to him and it was an opportunity that Manning, who before the Golden Hurricane was a longtime assistant at Kansas under Bill Self, couldn’t pass up.

It still wasn’t easy. He wanted to stay and develop the kids he’d brought in to build that program, and the Tulsa community had embraced him. But there was no guarantee that a job like this would be open in the future, or even if he’d still be a desirable name by then.

"Coaching is an unpredictable profession. At this point in time last year, I had no illusions that I would be sitting here," Manning said. "You just don’t know. I’m very fortunate and blessed that it worked out the way it did. These college jobs are hard to come by."

Wake Forest had gone 51-76 in previous head coach Jeff Bzdelik’s four seasons, and just 17-51 in ACC play. Wake Forest is a small private school nestled in the heart of downtown Winston-Salem, but the fanbase is a passionate one and one that is used to seeing, at the very least, competitive basketball.

The top pick in the 1988 NBA draft, Manning played 15 seasons before becoming an assistant at Kansas under Bill Self.

Change was necessary, and while the initial hire of Manning was met with some skepticism — he did only have two years of head coaching experience — the fact that he’s young (48), has roots in the area (Manning starred at Page High School in Greensboro, N.C.) and was the No. 1 overall draft pick certainly helped.

Bzdelik resigned on March 20, 2014. Not long after that, Childress — who was still going into work, in spite of his employer being dismissed — told administrative assistant Lynne Heflin that he hoped Manning got the job. This was before Manning’s name had even been mentioned.

"A lot of times, when you play the game for a long time the way we did, that’s counted against us," Childress said. "He and I had extended careers, so we get into coaching later because we were playing. I think that that says something about who we are and what we are. We were doing it while other guys were talking about it or ‘paying their dues’, we were actually out there doing it.

"I kind of was cheering for his success because I felt like I want him to be successful because I thought that my career would go similarly to his in the sense that we played for a long time, but we both had ambitions of being really great coaches."

Childress was at the Final Four in Dallas last year, as most assistant coaches usually are for various meetings and networking opportunities, when he heard the news about Manning being hired.

Not long after that, his cell phone buzzed. He looked down and saw he had a Twitter alert. Two new followers: @CoachDManning and @JustinBauman (the director of basketball operations).

"I’m like, OK. Why is the head coach or the new head coach of Wake Forest following me?’ But there was no communication between us, none, there for a couple of days and I thought that was odd," Childress said.

Manning wanted to have a Wake Forest presence on his staff, and who better than Childress, the second-leading scorer in school history and one of the most beloved former Deacs of all-time? It wasn’t a given for either party. Manning got recommendations for Childress, and he had to get to know him first.

For Childress, the previous two years — his first as a coach at the college level, first as a director of basketball operations and then as an assistant in 2013-14 — had worn on him. The hostility from the fanbase towards the Bzdelik regime was palpable to both he and the players. And he had other opportunities outside of Winston-Salem.

He and Manning had a number of meetings, and as they talked, Childress solidified what he already knew — the two had a lot in common. Both had long professional careers (Childress’ was overseas, mostly), both dealt with injuries — and both began their assistant coaching careers at their alma maters. Childress started at Wake Forest — where he often felt pressure to be as great as he was a player — and Manning at Kansas. The latter in particular was a conversation-starter for the two men, and they just clicked.

When he sat down with the rest of his staff that followed him from Tulsa, including former Kansas guard Steve Woodberry, they all meshed together very well and that was all Childress needed to know.

"I guaranteed those guys that you’re not going to love Wake Forest more than I do, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to the best of my ability for us to win," Childress said. "So it’s been great since then. I think everyone feels great about the direction that we’re going in, and we do as well."

Childress has saved Manning and his staff a ton of time, too. Instead of having to figure out the right people to talk to or where to go or what to do or which recruiting pipelines they needed to be plugged into, Childress knew all of that. "Great coach, great guy, but just his insight on all the inner workings and the lay of the land has saved us a lot of legwork," Manning said.

Woodberry, who’s been with Manning for three years now and an assistant coach on the Division-I level since 2007, knew Manning’s name was out there for the Wake Forest job. There was never much doubt in his mind that he’d follow him wherever he went.

He’s known Manning since he was 18 years old, when he first stepped on campus in Lawrence in 1990. At that time, ‘Danny and the Miracles” run to the 1988 national title was still fresh on everyone’s mind, and Manning had been drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers two years earlier.

He revered the older Manning at first, then got to know him through summer leagues and pickup in Lawrence. It didn’t take him long to see even then that Manning had an extremely keen basketball mind, and that’s why he jumped at the chance to join his staff at Tulsa when Manning was hired there.

"Just working with him day to day, he comes up with things, he sees things that maybe other people don’t. You’re always learning something from him," Woodberry said. "All those years in the NBA, he’s learned from Larry Brown as well as other coaches he’s had, and he’s bringing all that knowledge to the college game and to some of these guys, the players."

Manning didn’t always know he wanted to be a coach. His father, Danny Manning Sr., played professionally and coached his son at Kansas, where he played under Brown. So from the moment he began learning the game, he learned it in a more cerebral way than many.

After he was taken by the Clippers, it was just 26 games into his rookie season before he tore his ACL. It happened in a time where it wasn’t a common injury, and it was one that was considered devastating and career threatening. He tore his other ACL a few years later, and then had a third tear.

He became the first player to return to the NBA after reconstructive surgeries on both knees in NBA history. Three others have done it since.

He managed to play 15 years in the league in spite of his knee problems, mostly because he started to see the game as a coach would. He scouted his opponents, trying to gain any advantage he could without the speed and quickness he once had. He’d look at opposing big men on tape and study their foot placement, their moves, where they like to shoot from and why — anything and everything.

"A lot of things that I think about now and I thought about after I injured my knee are things that I never even considered before I got hurt, the thought process: How am I going to guard this guy?" Manning said. "Before, it just kind of happened. I’m going to figure out a way to get it done. You do little bit more planning when you go through the knee injury as you continue to play, whether it’s understanding the tendencies of your opponents, the tendencies of the teams that you’re playing — all those things come into play."

Towards the end of his NBA career, he became a valued bench presence, but he saw himself for what he was — an insurance policy. He wasn’t good enough to take anyone’s spot, but he was an acceptable substitute if someone got hurt. So he started coaching his teammates, telling them what he was seeing on the court.

He bounced from team to team, but in the offseason, he coached his children’s teams, whether it was basketball or baseball or softball. He started to think it might be for him, and when he retired in 2003, Kansas head coach Bill Self offered him a chance to dip his toe into the coaching waters as a director of student-athlete development. He worked his way to an assistant, but that initial job got him a chance to see how a program was run from the ground up.

Not surprisingly, he had a lot of success coaching Kansas’ big men like Cole Aldrich, Marcus and Markieff Morris, Jeff Withey, Thomas Robinson — all told, 14 future NBA draft picks.

Every stop he’s made along the way as a player and coach — and there have been many — were a chance for Manning to learn from several head coaches on all levels of basketball. In spite of all his NBA experience, he cites his father, Brown and Self as his biggest influences.

He’s developed his own style that’s a bit of a blend. "A lot of coaches — I liked it, so I’m going to use it. Some coaches, I don’t like it, I’m not going to use it. But everybody’s had some type of impact on me. I’m very thankful for those experiences that I’ve had," Manning said.

When he took over in Winston-Salem, he knew what challenges lay ahead. There was a general sense of discontentment and even anger around the basketball program, as fans were frustrated that Bzdelik hadn’t been let go sooner. There was not really much positive momentum to speak of throughout his tenure — nothing sustainable, anyway.

No one in the program then will say a bad word about Bzdelik, even now, though. Junior Codi Miller-McIntyre was asked what the difference was this season, and rather than say anything about his new head coach, he blamed himself and the other juniors for not playing better earlier. It’s a tough burden to put on a group of kids, to feel as if their performance got their coach fired.

When asked what the difference was with Manning and Bzdelik, the soft-spoken point guard looked at the ground. "I don’t know," he mumbled. "It’s tough to say."

He had nothing but glowing things to say about Manning when asked about him specifically, particularly his attention to defense. But it was clear that he didn’t want to badmouth his former coach, either.

Childress was the same way.

"I have nothing but great things to say about him. The person and the coach that I saw was great. To be honest with you, he’s on an NBA bench right now, so if anyone out there is debating how good a coach he was, that just doesn’t happen," Childress said. He’s a great man and he’s a great basketball coach. But for whatever reasons, a ton of other reasons that are neither here nor there, it didn’t work out. That’s just the best way to describe it."

One of them is probably that Bzdelik was more of an NBA-type coach than a college one, probably. His practices were packed with information and a lot of things to cover, maybe too much for college kids, and maybe not enough of the important things. Manning, as he’s already shown this year, will sit contentedly in his chair and observe defensive drills for as long as it takes.

When change happens, though, it’s never easy. Being hired in April meant he and his staff didn’t have a lot of time to fill out a roster. They had to keep as many current players as they could while being sensitive to the turmoil they’d already been through.

They had to re-recruit some of the Bzdelik signees, plus fill out the class in other ways, like signing senior transfer Darius Leonard. Freshman guard Mitchell Wilbekin de-committed from Tulsa when Manning left, electing to follow him to Winston-Salem by signing with the Demon Deacons.

“He’s stubborn, in a good way. (What) he’s stubborn about, we’re going to do it. We’re going to get this done.” — Wake Forest assistant Randolph Childress

"Really, just I really appreciate the whole staff. Him mainly, but the assistant coaches are great. I like the style of play, and I really felt like it was a place I could come in and have an early impact. That’s ultimately what I wanted," Wilbekin said. "He’s extremely competitive. He’s won, he’s played at every level. So I knew he could help me and help take my game to the next level. He’s really hard on us, and that’s what I wanted — a coach that’ll push you."

Manning and his staff paid special attention to the veterans who stayed, though, because he knew they were at a disadvantage. And getting them to stay was as important — they couldn’t just rely on their freshmen. In a sense, though, everyone was starting over.

"Change is hard for teenagers, especially in athletics. So you come in and the recruiting class is a class that you didn’t recruit, that you don’t know, that you’re trying to build a relationship with. We lost a kid that came in and de-committed and ended up going to another school," Manning said. "Coming in here, getting to know these guys and the system that we’re going to play, because that’s not the system that they came here under. So yeah, there’s a lot of scrambling going on."

But they had to scramble without compromising. They couldn’t afford to sign guys that were marginal just to fill spots. Wilbekin has been a good shooter at times for the Deacs this year, while another two freshmen — Dinos Mitoglou and Cornelius Hudson — are the third and fourth leading scorers, respectively, and have improved over the course of the season.

One word that’s most commonly used to describe Manning is stubborn. He has a vision for what he wants to do with this program, and he’s not going to compromise.

"He’s stubborn, in a good way. (What) he’s stubborn about, we’re going to do it. We’re going to get this done. And so change your mindset, get your mind prepared — we are going to get this done. Whatever it takes. That has rubbed down on our players," Childress said. "That’s one of the reasons you see us — we’ve been in games and we’ve been able to pull out games like we did (Sunday against Pittsburgh) that we’ve lost in the past. And look at our road games this year. We’ve been much more competitive this year on the road, and I think that’s a testament to his toughness.

"That’s kind of trickled down through the staff and through the players."

It wasn’t a beautiful start to his tenure by any stretch. Wake found itself 6-6 and 0-1 in the ACC before Christmas, and that included home losses to Iona and Delaware State, and a 30-point loss at Arkansas.

A close win at Richmond (the second-highest ranked Ken Pom team that Wake has beaten this year) seemed to be in positive sign. Then Wake began 2015 with those not-so-moral-victories against Louisville and Duke, before getting their first ACC win on January 10. Steps forward, to be sure.

And then, steps back. Wake lost four in a row after that, three of which came on the road. Then they won three of their next four, but the loss was by double digits at a bad Georgia Tech team. After losing by one at Virginia, they lost by 13 at Notre Dame and by 36 at home to a shorthanded Virginia team, but followed that up with the win over Pittsburgh.

Wake now sits at 13-16 overall and 5-11 in the league, but in spite of the progress, it’s the near-misses and a few rare flat performances that haunt the team and staff now.

Childress keeps a printed graphic on his desk that details the close games the team has let slip away — boxes filled in with different bright colors, and black text in the middle of each, to make the pain that much more acute. A four-point lead at Syracuse with 4:42 to go. Up two on Duke at home with around five minutes to go. Held a lead for 37:10 at Clemson. Missed potential game-winners in a double-overtime loss at Florida State.

Wake had a shot to win at Virginia, but Miller-McIntyre lost the ball and couldn’t even get a shot off in a one-point loss. That one, back on Feb. 14, hadn’t made it onto Childress’ sheet yet.

Still, he keeps that graphic to demonstrate to the players how close the team is. He tells them to add four wins to the current total, 13, out of those close games. Then add two bad losses from non-conference play. That’s 17-18 wins, maybe 19, if you stretch it. That’s a potential NCAA tournament bubble team.

"That’s what we tell the guys — we just don’t have the margin for error but if you just buy in and do the things that we’re asking you to do, and when you look at it that way and understanding it’s a realistic goal, that those adjustments were realistic in how we’ve given some games away, I think it’s easy for those guys to kind of feel a little bit different about themselves," Childress said.

"They’re not just beat up with the losses and looking at stuff saying ‘Man, we’re at 12 wins, now 13 wins’. Just let them know that it’s just that 1-2 minutes that you don’t do your job is what cost you a game in this conference. It’s that tough to play in. … So you do have to do a little bit of adjusting to it, but like coach says, ‘We’ve got to win. There are no moral victories here.’"

They have to build up the players, both so they continue to believe in what Manning is selling and give max effort, and so that the already-delicate psyche of some of them doesn’t suffer too many blows.

"For us, it’s been difficult because you’re not winning. For those guys, it’s like ‘Well, we’re doing all this but we ain’t winning’," Woodberry said. "Some of these guys are fragile. When you lose, it’s hard not to start doubting this and that, and you have situations — not talking negatively about (Miller-McIntyre), but when you have the ball with 12 seconds left and you don’t have a shot, people will say ‘Well, that’s Wake Forest’.

"But years past, they were losing on the road by 20. This year, now games are competitive. We’ve got a chance to win the game. So we’re close. But it’s still a lot of work to do."

Wake was an astoundingly bad 2-32 in ACC road games during Bzdelik’s tenure, and 28 of those losses came by double digits (12 by 20 or more). Just two of the losses were decided by less than five points. If you add in the two road wins, that’s four games where Wake was either in it at the end, or won outright.

After one of Bzdelik’s losses on the road — this one by 11 — NC State went on runs of 12-0, 20-4, 13-2 and 11-2 over the course of the game. When asked about those, Bzdelik said, "Our radio people told us if you take away those runs that we outscored them by 19."

This staff doesn’t have to stretch like that to find positives, and yet to them, the only real positives come from wins.

Wake still doesn’t have an ACC road win under Manning — it’s 0-7 so far, with two more to go — but the four of the seven games have been decided in overtime or by three points or fewer, which is already more than Bzdelik had in his four seasons.

It’s possible in some of these games that had Wake slowed it down — against Virginia, for instance, in a 70-34 loss — or played some zone against a team that doesn’t shoot 3-pointers well, that the Demon Deacons might have another win or two to their credit.

As a staff, they discussed tweaks like that. They’re all competitive, and they all want to win extremely badly. The temptation to take shortcuts like those were there.

But ultimately, that’s not the kind of program they want to build.

“I give more of a black-white answer. I don’t deal with gray too much.” –Danny Manning on moral victories

"You get one time to set your foundation. That’s what I need to keep reminding myself," Manning said, smiling. "We want to win, we want to be competitive. Absolutely. We don’t want any moral victories.

"But also, once your foundation is set, you can’t go back and change it. So to me, the foundation is more important than anything. This is how we’re going to do things, this is why we do things, this is how we’re going to carry ourselves. That’s going to be our baseline, and we’ll go from there."

Manning wants to play aggressive, man-to-man defense and a fast-paced offense where the players should feel free to go with their instincts. He won’t pull a player for an ill-advised shot, as long as they run back and play defense.

He also won’t hesitate to pull a player for a defensive mistake. Veteran and leading rebounder Devin Thomas didn’t play most of the final five minutes in the win over Pittsburgh on Sunday, which was Wake’s first since Feb. 11 and a big one for the Deacs. It was a head-scratching move to some, but Manning stuck to his guns.

"You still have to discipline guys and play your way, even though you may take lumps. But this is the way we’re going to coach in the future so we’ve got to start off coaching that way now," Woodberry said. "That’s important for style of play and how we want to play too. So now, they can teach the guys that are coming in. That’s what’s important."

It hasn’t been a steady trajectory, but Wake Forest has already won as many games in February and March combined (three) with at least three more to go as Wake did in the best February-March of the previous regime.

There have been steps back, like a double-digit loss at a bad Georgia Tech team in early February, or a 36-point shellacking at the hands of Virginia on Feb. 25.

But just a few days removed from that, Wake moved on from moral victories to actual victory with a three-point win over Pitt, having to come back from a nine-point deficit to do it.

"It was great to win against Pittsburgh last night, because that’s a game there that we were down and we don’t usually come back. But they’re taking steps. There may not be a lot of steps, but sometimes you take a couple of steps and then you go backwards. So you’ve got to keep them on that upward approach," Woodberry said.

This is a coaching staff, though, that is insanely competitive. After the 36-point Virginia loss, Manning was matter-of-fact, using the word "beatdown" four times in a six-minute press conference. He was no less matter-of-fact after the Pittsburgh game, though, because he knows how fleeting the success can be.

But he also knows the moral victories will only take his team so far. "I give more of a black-white answer. I don’t deal with gray too much. That’s just because moral victories in athletics, at the end of the day…" Manning trails off, and shrugs — "…they’ll get you fired. There just comes a point in time when it’s not going to do, so why settle for it now?"

They all know that it will take time. They knew that when they took the job.

But it doesn’t make the losses any easier. And it can be consuming.

It’s the losses that are like ‘Man, what did we do wrong?’ Because you’re always asking what more can I do. He’s that way and our staff is that way," Childress said. "It’s like, I can do more. In hindsight, we ask that out of your players now. There’s more. There’s more you can do. There’s always more you can do.

"But sometimes, every now and then, you look up and you’ve gotten engulfed in this and you’ve kind of got to be like, ‘Man, I’ve got to come up for air a little bit here. I’ve got to come up and get my head out of the sand a little bit and take a day or take a moment to relax.’ That’s where it can kind of — it can wear on you. It can wear on you a little bit.

"That’s something that hopefully, we don’t have to endure that much longer here. Where our plans are, we’re a lot closer to the success than we are going back to having to deal with worrying about dealing with losses. So of that point, we’re confident about. But it’s just the nature of who we are."

That competitiveness is borne out of successful careers. As Manning pointed out, Wake’s staff has over 40 years of professional basketball experience at various levels. Manning was in the NBA from 1988-2003. Childress was drafted 19th overall, but an ACL tear early in his career derailed his NBA future. He played overseas from 1997-2011. Woodberry went undrafted but played in Australia and Europe from 1994-2006.

Their obvious strides forward this year, combined with an excellent staff, has led to a lot of positive momentum on the recruiting trail as well. And if you’re a big man, why wouldn’t you want to play for one of the best to ever do it, with a proven track record of success coaching big men to boot?

"I think we’ve put ourselves in some conversations with the direction that we’re going. As far as the recruiting side of it, we’re — I think we’re the only staff in America that has over 40 years of professional basketball playing experience. We’re the only staff in America with two first-round draft picks," Manning said.

"So for us, we’ve been very fortunate and very blessed throughout our career. Now, we’re at a point where we’re trying to pay it forward or give it back, whatever adjective you want to use. Sometimes, to know the road ahead, you have to ask those coming back. We’ve been to where a lot of these kids want to go, where most of them want to go. We’re talking to them, firsthand experience."

Manning is young, and so is his staff, but they don’t want to be friends with the players. He’s tough on them, as evidenced by his use of the chair and his willingness to give a "butt-chewing" (his words) in practice.

But after said butt-chewing, once practice is over, that’s the end of it.

"On the court, he can get on guys but after practice he may sit back and play HORSE with them. So that’s great because some coaches, they don’t do that. It’s just, that’s it. They can be mad the next day instead of just, okay, let’s move on. It’s kind of like next play," Woodberry said.

His players feel that sense of freedom with Manning, and a sense of parental guidance combined with warmth and love. All in all, this year is almost like a freebie, even if the staff doesn’t see it that way. But the feeling surrounding the program is much more positive.

"I know to this point, we haven’t had from the statistics and the wins haven’t added up to the way we like but I think all in all, everyone would say they feel positive about the transition and where it’s going. That’s a credit to Coach Manning," Childress said.

"Here we are now, we’re still four wins less than we had last year, but there’s just a different feeling about the program and more of a positive spin about the direction that we’re headed to. The biggest difference right now is just the perception of where the programs were from one year to the next, and that’s normal when you have change."

Wake closes the season with games at Duke and at Boston College. Manning and his staff will prepare his team the same way for each, and will genuinely expect to win each. That’s why after the Pitt game, Manning was mildly pleased. Not happy, though.

"I think the rest of the story will be told these next two games and how we go into the ACC tournament. We’ve got two more games to get prepared to go win an ACC tournament, and that’s got to be our mindset. We have to use this as momentum and we have to build upon this — in practice, in drills, and have it carry over into the game," Manning said.

That’s right — win an ACC tournament.

That kind of confidence and fire is what has drawn his players to his energy and aura, and it’s what drew Childress to him from the first time they met until the moment he asked him, during brunch at The Midtown Cafe, to be a member of the staff.

"We’re expecting to win this game against Duke. If we were to win this game, we’re not going to come in here like, ‘Oh, we shocked the world.’ No. We expected to go in there and win," Childress said.

If they don’t, it will drive them just as crazy as every other loss has. Doesn’t matter that it’s tough to win at Duke, and very few teams do it. Wake doesn’t care about that.

But there will be no shortcuts, and Manning knows he has to be patient, as difficult as that may feel at times.

"I think we’re moving in the right direction," Manning said. "We’re not moving as fast as I’d like, but we’re getting there."