Monday, May 23, 2022

Court Report: Steve Forbes has relied on two underrated transfers to help orchestrate Wake Forest turnaround

It was around midnight on a Sunday last August when Steve Forbes was awoken by what he thought was some sort of storm or earthquake. The bedroom felt like it was shaking. What was happening? It took a minute, but then it clicked. 

They’re in the basement.

All was well. In fact, the noise was a great thing. Turns out more than half of Wake Forest’s men’s basketball roster decided to go to their coach’s house and watch a movie — volume blaring for full effect. Forbes’ house is across the street from campus. His son, who let everyone in, is the video coordinator for the Demon Deacons.

Such a scene helps tell the story of how tightly knit Wake Forest has become one of the biggest turnaround teams this season. The Deacs are 19-5 and have won 13 more games this season than they did in Forbes’ first year, when COVID led to a 22-game catastrophe — only six of those games ending in Wake wins. This year, Wake Forest should more than quadruple its win total, as it’s tied with Duke and Notre Dame in the win column in the ACC and ranks No. 2 in the conference in multiple advanced metrics. 

One of those systems is BartTorvik.com, which is something of a cousin to KenPom.com. Among the many insightful attributes Torvik has that KenPom does not is a listing and ranking of transfers. Per Torvik, Wake Forest has two of the seven best transfers in the sport. Combo guard Alondes Williams (via Oklahoma) is No. 4 and stretch-four Jake LaRavia (via Indiana State) is No. 7. No team has thrived off a pair of transfers more, though Kentucky (Oscar Tshiebwe is No. 1, Kellan Grady 17th) can claim something similar. Kentucky, however, was a preseason top-10 team nationally. Wake Forest was picked 13th in its league.

Wake has one NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010, a one-and-done First Four showing in 2017. The last time the Deacons had a team with a ceiling this high was 2008-09, when Wake Forest was a 4-seed and won 24 games. Since then, the program’s averaged only 12.9 wins per year and toiled in irrelevancy. Since 2010-11, its average finish in the ACC: 12th. It was never higher than ninth and three times had the worst record.

Look at ’em now. The Demon Deacons swept Florida State this season, something they hadn’t done in decade-plus, and in their road game Saturday vs. the Seminoles, Williams and LaRavia combined for 41 points, 21 rebounds and 13 assists.

Williams leads the ACC in scoring and assists. If this remains true through the end of the season, he’ll be the first player in at least five decades to do it. LaRavia has been the best up-transfer this season. 

So, how’d Forbes flip the culture and do so with an Indiana State guy and a former reserve for a 16-11 Oklahoma team? 

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I’m not sitting here telling you I broke the code or figured out the enigma. Some of it’s luck,” Forbes said. “There’s a gamble with all of them until you get them.”

Forbes’ decorated experience with JUCO players certainly is a factor. The 56-year-old coached at the junior college level for 11 years. He’s also worked at Idaho, Illinois State, Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Wichita State and ETSU. He coached junior college transfers at those schools, too. Forbes has kept every practice plan over 33 years and told me he’s coached 197 JUCO guys in his career. It was his JUCO connections that helped him land Williams. Once the former Triton College star (where Williams played before going to Oklahoma) was sold on being a major piece at Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons had beaten out … Saint Joe’s. 

Williams was a player waiting to be unlocked. His former coaches at Oklahoma told me he was the Sooners’ most talented athlete in his two years in Norman. There was a learning curve, but he showed flashes. Any time Oklahoma was in desperate need of a bucket, Lon Kruger would call an ISO, give Williams the ball at the top of the key and let him paint.

“Even Austin Reaves would tell you he was the most naturally talented guy we had,” former OU assistant Carlin Hartman, now at UNLV, told me. “Not even close. Raw ability, quick-twitch, powerful athlete and go anywhere on the floor he wanted to, it was Alondes.”

And yet he averaged 6.7 points and 1.3 assists at OU. This season, he’s gone for at least 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in five games. 

“He fit the profile of the player that we were looking for,” Forbes said. “Great size, body that I knew could score and handle the ball and he played at a good program for a great coach that won. … After we talked on the phone and on Zoom, he understood that I had the same path that he had to get to Division I and I think there was a comfort level there for him.” 

Forbes said that by the start of the season it was clear to him that Williams was one of the best passers he’d ever coached.  

“That is why we have a good team. Our best two players are our leading assists-makers, and they’re extremely unselfish,” Forbes said.

On the season:

  • Williams 19.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 52.4 FG% 
  • LaRavia 15.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 59.1 FG% 

This is old hat for Forbes, who took Ge’Lawn Guyn from Cincinnati and helped him score more in one season at ETSU than he did in three with the Bearcats. He did it with former Baylor player Deuce Bello and many others as well. Few coaches have the credibility of making transfers work — no matter their backgrounds — like Forbes has as a head coach and assistant. 

Unlike Williams, LaRavia was dutifully courted by many high-major schools. But timing helps. Indiana State made a coaching change and Jake, like Williams, didn’t want to drag out the process. 

“We hit it off and I think he listened to Greg a lot and Greg was instrumental in helping us get him,” Forbes said.

Greg is Greg Lansing, LaRavia’s former coach at Indiana State. Forbes has known Lansing since the early ’90s. He trusts Lansing. Forbes was impressed with LaRavia’s skill, size, ability to make shots, but more importantly, his handle.

“I knew he was very well-coached,” Forbes said. “I knew he was going to be a good player. The first couple weeks of practice, the ability to move his feet, guard guards and the wing position. A lot of guys say they want to play the three, but to me your position is who you can defend, and he can defend every position. He’s a versatile player, but they both are stepping into roles where they’re the top of the scouting report and that’s a different responsibility — you get a different level of attention.”

LaRavia and Williams — who goes by “ManMan” — have become program-changing players. LaRavia was one assist shy of a triple-double on Saturday, and Williams already had one (16/14/10) in Wake’s game against USC Upstate on Dec. 11.

Toss in the returns of double-digit scorers Daivien Williamson and Isaiah Mucius, and it’s easy to see why Wake Forest is finally good again.

“I’m hard on them but I spend a lot of time with them,” Forbes said. “When you recruit kids out of the portal and tell them something, you’ve got to do it.”

Players are required to check in with coaches in the office every non-game day weekday before 1 p.m. They eat lunch and/or dinner with each other; players must share a meal with different members of the team constantly. 

But, for all of Wake Forest’s success, the Demon Deacons are still far from a 2022 NCAA Tournament lock. 

“One of the things we’re fighting is the perception that the league is not as good and we haven’t been good,” Forbes said. “We have a good team, but I don’t think a lot of people understand that or respect that. And I’m not mad about that. We need to win. You get respect by winning. I don’t get caught up in that at all.”

There’s still more proving to do for a bid, but the evidence is already in and no convincing is needed for the job Forbes and his staff have done this season, as Wake Forest is finally a factor again, and for the first time in a long time, can argue it’s a top-two team in the state of North Carolina. If Williams continues to play to his averages, he also will have a strong case to win ACC Player of the Year. The last guy to do that was Josh Howard in 2003.

alondeswilliamswake.jpg

Alondes Williams leads the ACC in scoring (19.8) and assists (5.2). Getty Images

Which of these 7 teams will go undefeated in league play?

Depending on which league you’re looking at, the regular season has three-to-four weeks remaining before conference tournaments get going. It’s a team’s dream to make it well into February without a league loss. Seven schools are still living that dream. For the mid-majors doing it, these are the teams for you to watch a bit and study up on before we get to the tourney. 

Listed in order of most likely to least likely to finish undefeated (per KenPom projections) …

Gonzaga (WCC).

Chances of running the league table: 56.6%

The 19-2 Bulldogs are 8-0 in the WCC and rank No. 1 in all predictive metrics. KenPom projects Gonzaga will go 13-1; GU had two league games on the road vs. Loyola Marymount and Portland that will not be rescheduled. Because Gonzaga will wind up with only six road games this season, I believe it probably can’t afford to lose any matchup other than the WCC title game in order to earn a No. 1 seed. 

Murray State (OVC)

Chances: 34.4%

Looks like Ja Morant’s going to be at the Feb. 17 home tilt vs. Austin Peay, and if you read last week’s Court Report, you know that Ja making the drive back to his old stomping grounds is a regular thing. The Racers are 12-0, their most recent loss coming to No. 1 Auburn in December. The forecast is 27-3/17-1. If that happens, Murray State will easily be in the NCAAs, no matter what happens in the conference tournament.

Wagner (NEC)

Chances 32.5%

Not only are Bashir Mason’s Seahawks 10-0 in conference play, they’ve won 13 in a row and have the longest active winning streak. Now in his 10th season, Mason has patiently and diligently done a fine job with this program. Wagner last made the NCAAs in 2003. KenPom projects the 16-2 Seahawks to finish 21-3 heading into the league tournament (where the higher seed gets to play on its home court).

Vermont (America East)

Chances: 31.3%

This is the third time UVM’s had a 10-0 start in the America East under John Becker, whose Catamounts are once again in that top-75 echelon at KenPom. Yet again, we’ve got a team projected to wind up with just one league loss, as the Cats still have five roadies left in conference play. This would be Vermont’s fourth NCAA Tournament-level team in six seasons if it gets there. 

South Dakota State (Summit League)

Chances: 27.2%

Another 12-0 team in conference play, so cheers to Eric Henderson’s Jackrabbits, who’ve thrived in obscurity in 2022. Let’s help bring some attention to the best 3-point offense in the sport (43.3%). KenPom says: 26-5 with a 17-1 league mark is the most likely outcome. 

Houston (American)

Chances: 24.4%

The Cougars were the lead item of a January Court Report. All Kelvin Sampson’s team has continued to do since is win. This team just won by 22 at Cincinnati to improve to 9-0 in the AAC and 20-2 overall. The conference is affecting its reputation. KenPom projection: 28-3 finish with a 17-1 league record. I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

Longwood (Big South)

Chances: 7.5%

This is by far the best season for the Lancers since they moved up to Division I in 2004. At 9-0 and 17-5 overall, Griff Aldrich’s team is nowhere near the top 100 in any metric. That’s fine. History’s about to be made. Longwood’s next game comes Thursday night at home vs. USC Upstate. If the Lancers win, they will set a program record for most victories in a season.

What’s the common thread among all these teams? None of them are projected, as of today, to win out. But collectively, the chances that at least one of them does is pretty good. So, why not? I’ll call my shot: Gonzaga and Wagner wind up doing it.

wagnercrs.jpg

Alex Morales and Wagner have the nation’s longest winning streak: 13 games. Gett

No team has had a worse schedule situation than SIUE

On Jan. 29, one of the better freshmen in the country tore his ACL. You probably didn’t hear about it because of the team Ray’Sean Taylor plays for: SIU Edwardsville (SIUE). Taylor’s season ended with him averaging 17.6 points, No. 2 among all freshmen.

Unfortunately, it also marked the second time in less than 18 months that Taylor injured his right knee. And in a freak occurrence, Taylor’s injury came almost one year to the day from another SIUE player, Cam Williams, suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Both were non-contact, and while there’s no saying what exactly leads to an injury like this, SIUE’s scheduling crunch certainly didn’t help. Last year, when everyone was scrambling amid COVID, the Cougars had to play 14 games in 25 days to close out their league schedule.

This year, because of COVID and having a game pushed due to weather, SIUE had to play four games in nine days and is in the midst of playing three games a week for four consecutive weeks. The events mirror each other. Last year was tough but understandable. The team was out for 33 days, then had to scrunch everything in. This year felt different. The Cougars have been on a Thursday/Saturday/Monday schedule as of late. The team hasn’t had a normal practice in more than a month. The travel — all of it by bus — has been taxing. 

“In back-to-back years I don’t know anyone who’s had it as bad,” SIUE coach Brian Barone told me of the scheduling. “And then we’ve had the injuries as well, which is brutal.”

SIUE, which plays in the Ohio Valley, did go to league officials last year and express concern. There were some timetable tweaks (no more than four makeup games allowed), but unfortunately the team has been caught in a blender again.  

“It weighs on the team mentally, the four weeks of back-to-back-to-back preparations,” Barone said. “We are asking our guys to do something that is unrealistic from a mental and physical standpoint.”

There’s still another three-game road trip in a five-day span that awaits later this month, when the SIUE-Eastern Illinois game will be made up. On Monday, SIUE had to play at home vs. SEMO and lost by 29.

“Yesterday was the first time that our guys, I could see they almost broke,” Barone said. “Our weekly practices have been decimated.”

The OVC is not in an enviable spot. It needs to get in as many games as is reasonable in order to fairly hold a regular season, crown a champion and seed for the conference tournament. SIUE has been snakebitten all the while. There was only so much the OVC could or was willing to do. SIUE has gone from 7-8 to 7-17 (1-10 in OVC). SIUE’s schedule hell is unique at this point in the season. Makeup games are inconvenient for everyone, but nobody is playing three games a week for three straight weeks, let alone for a month, like SIUE. 

“Part of my thing with all of this is the travel,” Barone said; his team played seven road games between Jan. 13-Feb.5. “The consistency in every day you’re on the road and then you play the next day. A few days ago we got in at 2 a.m. from Murray and then we played again yesterday. You’re coming in the next morning with travel. You’re not chartering, like Duke. That’s the most difficult part of all of this.”

The injury to Taylor basically means SIUE is playing out the string at this point. The team still has its pride, but the hope is that the program can avoid any further injuries. It’s already dialed back its practice routines more as a preventive measure.

@ me

The Court Report’s mailbag! Find me on Twitter, toss a question and I’ll answer some each week.

A.J. Griffin was on a tear … until Duke’s noxious loss at home to Virginia on Monday. He’s a lottery talent and will need to play at that level in the NCAAs to give Duke a shot at winning it all. I think the UVA game speaks to this. But he’s not quite the prospect Banchero is right now. I can see a scenario in which we get to the Sweet 16 and people are talking about how Duke has two of the five best players in the NCAAs at that point — it’s just a matter of Griffin being consistent.

“Power Five” is a football term, but to the spirit of your question, no team from a power conference in men’s basketball has received an at-large bid without a Quad 1 win since the NET became a thing in 2018. Prior to that, when RPI was around, there still isn’t an equivalent to this historically. You need to beat good teams to get in with an at-large. UNC is 0-7 vs. Quad 1 and undefeated vs. the rest of its schedule. I think it will need at least two Q1 wins to make it in.

Yes. I covered this in the Court Report from two weeks ago, but if you missed it, a reminder that the one-time-only in-season top-16 bracket reveal will air on CBS next Saturday, Feb. 19, at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Not even close. This question has prompted me to voice one of my quirks about talks of “locks” every February and March. I’m a stickler on this one, I know, but to me a team is only a “lock” if it can literally afford to lose every single remaining game and still be in as an at-large without any doubt whatsoever. At this stage of the season, there aren’t more than 18 locks, and UConn is most definitely not one of those teams. 

Final shots

• The Horizon League confirmed on Wednesday it will ban UIC from postseason competition this year, as UIC is off to the Missouri Valley next season. The Horizon League, the America East (which did it to Stony Brook) and the CAA (which did it to James Madison) all deserve scorn for screwing over the college athletes who had no say in these discussions. Conferences have the power to change their rules, punish institutions financially, but still allow teams to compete. Please comport yourself like adults and not petty exes. 

• This is a complex issue, but news came down on Tuesday that the National College Players Association is pushing forward to get college athletes paid. As in: as employees of universities, beyond NIL deals. The endgame goal here is to have all football and D-I hoopers to be paid for their services. Would be the true detonation of the collegiate model, and there’s no telling if we’ll get to that point. 

• Tuesday night was damaging to the WCC’s hopes of getting four bids. San Francisco took a Quad 4 loss at home to Portland, while Saint Mary’s lost at Santa Clara, which is a reasonable Quad 1 defeat.

• Ohio State’s Seth Towns, a former Ivy League player of the year, has had one of the more star-crossed college careers I can recall. Chris Holtmann announced Tuesday that Towns’ season was done due ongoing rehab with a back injury. This is Towns’ sixth season in college, and in three of those seasons (two at Harvard), he’s not played a game, which will amount to more than 90 games missed. 

IUPUI’s roster depletion is so dire that the school is holding open tryouts. You just know there are guys who run in intramurals every Tuesday night who believe their moment has finally arrived.

• According to Arizona, Tommy Lloyd’s 20-2 start is the second-best through 22 games by a first-year coach in the past 25 years at a power-conference school. The only ones better: Jamie Dixon at Pitt and Bill Guthridge at UNC were 21-1.

• States with the most teams in the top 80 at KenPom: Texas (8), California (7), Ohio (5)

Good one from Mid-Major Madness on college basketball’s oldest player — who happens to play for a potential Cinderella candidate

More goodness from the Heat Check, which trained its lens in a little tighter on Wyoming and its coach, Jeff Linder. Cowboys held on in overtime vs. Utah State on Tuesday night to improve to 20-3.

• There are too many Division I basketball teams, but we’ve got more. Southern Indiana announced on Wednesday that it will be joining the OVC.

Related articles

Comments

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Share article

Latest articles

Newsletter

Subscribe to stay updated.