WINSTON-SALEM – Wake Forest is hoping Danny Manning can turn around its slumping basketball team.
No miracles needed.
The former Kansas star is taking over the project of rebuilding the Demon Deacons, and he thinks his new team is closer than recent results might indicate.
“We have aspirations of being a championship team,” Manning said during his formal on-campus introduction. “We want to cut down nets, and we have to put forth the work. ... I’m willing to roll up my sleeves, and let’s go get it.”
The centerpiece of the Jayhawks’ “Danny and the Miracles” 1988 national title team was hired last week to replace Jeff Bzdelik, who resigned under intense public pressure three weeks ago following four mostly unremarkable seasons.
“We all know about Danny Manning’s career, one of the greatest college basketball players ever,” Wake Forest athletics director Ron Wellman said. “That has nothing to do with the reason we hired him as our basketball coach.”
The Demon Deacons haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010 and had three straight losing seasons under Bzdelik before finishing 17-16 this year with sophomores making up the core of the team.
“I just believe that the pieces are in place,” Manning said. “You’re talking about this soon-to-be junior class, they’ve kind of gone through their hardships, so to speak, and kind of gotten a taste of what it’s like to play in (the Atlantic Coast Conference). ... I feel, and I believe they feel, they’re ready for a breakout year.”
The 47-year-old Manning was 38-29 with two postseason berths in two seasons at Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane started 1-6 last season but rebounded to win 11 straight games and reach their first NCAA Tournament since 2003.
There’s an element of risk to his hiring because of his lack of head coaching experience, but Wellman said ex-Kansas coach Larry Brown told him Manning was more than just a star player for those Jayhawks teams.
“He was the big-man coach as a player at Kansas,” Wellman said. “That tells you something about what his track record and career path was going to be.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Manning brings a mix of national and local name recognition to a program that sank near the bottom of the expanded ACC.
Manning attended Greensboro Page High School before his family moved to Lawrence, Kan., for his senior year, and when it was time to choose a college, he picked Kansas instead of North Carolina.
He spoke fondly of watching the Demon Deacons play in Greensboro Coliseum in the 1970s and ’80s and said he received a text message Tuesday from a former prep teammate wanting to reminisce about some of those high school rivalries.
“I am very happy to be a part of this and looking forward to establishing our new foundation for Wake Forest basketball,” Manning said. “Our foundation will be built on sacrifice for one another. I believe what’s good for you is what’s good for the team. It will be built on hard work and sparing no effort.”
Manning said his Demon Deacons will be driven by their defense and an up-tempo team on offense that works from the inside out – as might be expected from a 6-foot-10 power forward who made two All-Star teams during an injury-marred NBA career.
“I believe in paint touches,” Manning said. “Once you’re able to do that, you’re able to break down the defense and it gives you a chance to be successful on the offensive end.”
He said he hasn’t made any decisions on the composition of his staff – whether he’ll bring some assistants from Tulsa or keep some of them who worked under Bzdelik. But when he reeled off a list of the Wake Forest players he remembers watching, he mentioned Randolph Childress, who was part of Bzdelik’s final coaching staff at the school.
Before he met with the media Tuesday, Manning said he chatted with the returning players over pizza in an informal, get-to-know-you session.
Barring any transfers, he will inherit a team with eight players who will be either juniors or redshirt juniors in 2014-15, including promising big man Devin Thomas and tempo-setting guard Codi Miller-McIntyre.
“We’re just building our relationships,” Manning said. “It’s something that’s definitely in the beginning stages but I feel comfortable with all the guys. I hope they feel comfortable with me. ... They know I want to get to know them on all levels.”