As was the case with several bubble teams, the last couple games of the regular season have been crucial for Wake Forest. Entering Wednesday night’s clash with No. 8 Louisville at 16-12 and 7-9 in conference play, the Demon Deacons desperately needed a signature upset to separate themselves from the bottom-feeders of the ACC and bolster their tournament resume.
Somehow, Wake Forest pulled off the win downing the Cardinals 88-81 and doing its best to secure a spot in March Madness. While the Demon Deacons have had their fair share of close calls against ranked opponents, to call the win unexpected is a massive understatement given that Louisville very much resembles a team built to make a Final Four run. That being said, what led to the win wasn’t some great stroke of coaching genius, nor was it an off-night for Rick Pitino’s stingy backcourt. No, it was just the fact that nobody in the ACC—soon to be the nation, if Wake catches a break—can stop John Collins.
While the other four Wake Forest starters combined for a whopping 17 points, the 6-foot-10 sophomore forward continued his dominance of ACC front courts, dropping 25 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go along with 11 boards and a pair of blocks. The Demon Deacons got a much-needed 43-point boost from a trio of bench players, but as has been the case since mid-January, Collins was the tip of the spear.
If you don’t know Collins, it’s not entirely your fault. He entered the season coming off a fine freshman campaign—he averaged 7.3 points and 3.9 boards in 14.4 minutes per game in 2016—but wasn’t exactly a star. It’s fair to say that few imagined Collins would turn in the most impressive stretch of offensive post performances in the ACC since Jahlil Okafor spent 2015 swallowing defenders whole.
In the post, Collins has just about every tool imaginable at his disposal: the ability to put the ball on the deck and take his man to the hole, turnaround jumpers, the ability to finish smoothly with either hand, baby hooks, tenacity and sound technique on the boards, the hops to challenge fellow big men at the rim, the endurance to go basket-to-basket in transition.
Collins has been referred to as underrated and the best player nobody’s talking about. That’s not exactly accurate given the fact that Collins is one of three players with a legitimate shot at claiming the ACC’s player of the year honors (that will almost surely go to Duke’s Luke Kennard or UNC’s Justin Jackson before it goes to Collins, though), but Collins’ work for head coach Danny Manning in his second campaign has been nothing short of masterful. He’s scored in double-digits in 27 of the team’s 29 games, and he’s been a terror over the last 12 games.
Since a six-point outing in a Jan. 11 loss to UNC, Collins has gone for 20 points in every game, with Wednesday night’s double-double marking his 12th consecutive 20-point game. Over that stretch, he’s averaging 24.3 points on 13.7 shots per game; he’s shooting 66.5 percent from the field to pair with 11.1 rebounds, including 4.5 offensive boards, and 1.7 blocks—all in just 28.3 minutes per game. In other words: John Collins has been balling the fuck out on a middling team in the deepest conference in all of college basketball. And now he has them within striking distance of the tournament.
Prior to the Louisville upset, the Demon Deacons had consistently played their ranked opponents tough (Florida State and Villanova notwithstanding), but a porous defense (77.0 points allowed per game) and an inability to close down the stretch did them in every time. They lost to Duke twice by a combined seven points, dropped a six-point loss to UNC, and came within four points of downing Xavier.
Wake Forest now sits at 10th in the ACC and will need to finish out with a win against Virginia Tech and score at least one or two more in next week’s conference tournament if it wants to dance. But if the Demon Deacons do hear their name called on Selection Sunday, whoever lines up opposite them in the first round will have one task and one task only: Stop John Collins. Wish them luck.