Wake Forest (WakeForestSports.com)
Location: Winston-Salem, N.C.
Rankings: WFU - No. 43 KenPom, NR AP; UNC - No. 6 KenPom, No. 11 AP
Records: WFU - 10-6, 1-3 ACC; UNC - 14-3, 2-1 ACC
Carolina Series History (Last Meeting): UNC leads 158-66 (UNC 83, WFU 68, Jan. 20, 2016, Smith Center)
The behemoth that is the 15-team ACC is a punishing challenge for all of its member schools. The schedule can be demanding, the travel can be long and the competition is at the highest level in the sport. For those that survive the 18-game gauntlet, the reward is often a high seed in the NCAA tournament. For those that don't, it can feel like a nightmare scenario that chews up talented teams and leaves them fighting for their postseason lives, or worse, not in the postseason conversation at all.
Take the 2016-17 edition of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Wake was 9-3 against non-conference foes, losing only to Villanova, Northwestern and Xavier, three teams with a combined record of 42-8. They posted a pair of quality road wins at Charleston and Richmond and also handed LSU a 110-76 beatdown in Winston-Salem. Entering Wednesday night, the Deacs are ranked No. 43 by KenPom.com and are a robust No. 23 in the NCAA's official RPI.
But Wake is in the midst of a run of games that could potentially define its season, for better or worse. The Demon Deacons sit at 1-3 in the league with losses to Florida State, Clemson and Virginia, despite leading in the second half against all three. Their rematch with Boston College is Jan. 31, so the next five games - UNC, Miami, at NCSU, at Syracuse and Duke - will likely determine whether or not they have a legitimate shot at returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
This is easily the best team of the Danny Manning era in Winston, and most of that improvement has come on the offensive end. After ranking 123rd and 132nd in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency rating the last two seasons, the Deacs have climbed up to No. 26 in 2017. Wake has shot better all over the floor, but especially from the outside. Led by four players making at least 38.8 percent of their 3-point attempts, the Deacs rank 41st nationally in 3FG% a year after being by far the ACC's worst outside shooting team.
Keyshawn Woods, the ACC's second-most famous sophomore Charlotte transfer, has picked up right where he left off in 2015. The 6-3 sharpshooter from Gastonia made 46.6 percent of his 3s as a freshman at Charlotte and is making 44.6 percent in his first season at Wake. Grad transfer Austin Arians from UW-Milwaukee and junior Mitchell Wilbekin are also topping 40 percent from deep so far, and 6-10 junior Dinos Mitoglou is not far behind. Interestingly, however, sophomore Bryant Crawford has attempted more 3s than anyone on the roster despite being a career 34.5-percent outside shooter.
While the Deacs usually have four shooting threats on the floor at all times, they do have a pair of traditional big bodies in sophomores John Collins and Doral Moore. Moore, who at 7-1 has loads of potential and made 72 percent of his shots in ACC play last year, is only on the floor about 20 percent of the time, however, leaving Collins to carry the load at center. And carry it he has. Collins has blossomed into a capable scorer and an elite rebounder. He leads Wake in both scoring and rebounding and ranks in the top 50 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage.
Wake missed a golden opportunity to bank a key win in its first home ACC contest when the Deacs went scoreless over the final four-plus minutes in a 73-68 loss to Clemson. They followed that by being outscored 33-16 in the final 10 minutes of a 79-62 loss at Virginia. The good news is that in the ACC, the chances for signature wins keep coming. The bad news is that in the ACC, the chances for hard-luck losses come just as frequently.