Early this week someone asked me what I thought had happened to Wake Forest. This was just on the heels of their abysmal performance at Miami that left them at 1-3 over their last 4 and able to slay such giants as Duke and UNC, but unable to handle the ACC's cellar dwellers such as Georgia Tech.
About the Deacons, an opinion you'll likely hear a lot of, is that the Deacon's inexperience is a main cause for their inconsistency. This is not untrue, as the ACC is a tough conference (#1 in RPI) where if you let up for any game, especially on the road, almost any team can beat you. The Deacons are indeed inexperienced, with their main contributors (Johnson 15.7%, Teague 23.2%, Aminu 16.5) all being underclassmen and using over 50% of their total possessions. Similarly Wake ranks 274th in "Experience" on KenPom, with an average of 1.32 years (this is of course weighted by minutes played). Though they have some upperclassmen, Senior role player Harvey Hale and Juniors who play large parts (McFarland, Williams, Smith), this team thrives off of the three underclassmen. So Wake Forest is young and inexperienced, this isn't news to anyone. They played a soft non-conference schedule (Non-Conf SOS 269th) that didn't quite let anyone get a really in depth look at how their young talent would react to adverse situations and mold into a team. Younger players typically have more drastic ups and downs than older ones (see Wake's 292nd consistency rank), and obviously this has positive ramifications. If Wake were insanely consistent, they may have never played well enough to beat UNC or Duke. However, the opposite side of that coin is that often times the Deacons play way under their potential other games (see VATech, GT, Miami).
Ok, we can all agree that Wake is inexperienced and inconsistent, but specifically how has this let them down and resulted in losses? Jeff Teague feels that teams have begun to game plan against him and shut him down, not untrue but I don't think this is the main issue. It's certainly doesn't help to have a point guard who takes 14 shots to get to 15 points (average over the last 3 games), but against Duke he only scored 11 points (2 assists) and they somehow managed to win. That is because the true cause for their recent slide is defense. Looking at the Deacon's last 8 games they're 5-3 (ACC schedule +BYU who I'll include because they're of roughly comparable ability and skill to the slightly above-average ACC team, such as Miami). In their 5 wins they gave up only a 94 defensive efficiency, and not against many offensively inept teams (UNC averages 123, Duke 115, BYU 116). In the 3 losses they've allowed a 109 defensive efficiency, to the likes of Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Miami (110, 98, and 115 respectively). Wake's reputation is and was built on defense. Much like the Tar Heels, a lot of their offense comes from fast breaks created off forced turnovers and missed shots. The Deacon's offense may not have been operating at full capacity in those 3 losses, but if so it's only because their defense didn't set it up for easy buckets. When their defense is working, the Deacons have many more fast breaks and easy baskets, as evidenced by their torrid pace in wins (79.2 poss/game) when compared to the pace at which they've played their losses (71.0). At a deeper level, why is the Deacon's defense failing? Their tightly packed zone forced opponents to take jump shots. This is in line with one of the most famous talking points of basketball "don't foul jump shooters". Wake's zone doubles down low without fouling and forces opposing teams to take jumpers. In their wins the Deacon's opponents average a 33.3* Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA) practically identical to Wake's season average (33.5). In the 3 losses, their opponents have a 54.9 Free Throw Rate. That rate of fouling is way too high to succeed playing a zone defense built around forcing poor shots and playing staunch defense on the easy ones.
Obviously there are other statistical discrepancies in their wins and losses, but I feel those (FG%, Offensive Efficiency, Offensive and Defensive Turnover Rate) are mainly effects of the Deacon's main issues, sloppy zone defense that results in fouling opponents too frequently. The Deacons are suffering from the problem that has seemingly plagued the Roy Williams-led Tar Heels every February/March for the past 6 years, consistently being able to put forth the effort it takes to play high level defense.
*Take out the UNC game (the foul line frequenting Heels posted a 51.4% FTR) and this number drops to 28.8.