It has been awhile since the BSD staff has had a chance to sit down and talk together at once. We fire texts and tweets back and forth, have seen each other at tailgates and comment together, but have not had a roundtable discussion in a long time. Luckily, four of us (Rob, Riley, Bart and I) were able to spend an hour talking Wake Forest basketball and program at large. What follows is part one of our two part Coffee Talk on the Jeff Bzdelik Era.
You can find the first half of the discussion after the jump...
Martin: Here we are again with another edition of Blogger So Dear Coffee Talk. We haven't done this in awhile, and I know I'm excited to talk hoops with everyone at once.
Riley: It's great to be here Marty.
Bart: It's great to be back chatting with everyone again and is always a pleasure to be back in the presence of such great company.
Rob: I'm looking forward to talking about it as well. I know we have differing opinions, and I look forward to putting this out in a public forum and seeing what response we get.
Riley: I can say for certain that we will all do better than Jeff Goodman would.
Martin: Well that's a good starting point. What is everyone's impression of the team as we enter February? The Demon Deacons are .500, 2-6 in conference and sitting at 206 in the KenPom ratings. Do you guys think this Wake Forest team would beat the Toronto Raptors?
Riley: I don't think that we would beat the Toronto Raptors, but I damn sure think we would beat #205 Austin Peay on a neutral court.
Rob: I believe that this team is noticeably better than last season. Last year we were just non-competitive in conference games and it was downright embarrassing. We went 1-15 in the conference the only close games were Virginia (win) and Miami (loss). This year, we already have 2 conference wins, and should get 2 maybe three more. I also thought we did a respectable job of taking care of business in the non-conference season. Very solid road win at Nebraska and also a nice tournament win over Texas Tech.
Bart: The Governors would be a challenge for the current Deacons and would probably be a good game. Moving on to our team, I think that this team is definitely improved from last year, but still faces the same problems last year's team encountered: inability to dribble, offensive uncertainty, long periods of time where we can't score the ball, etc. It's frustrating, but there is evidence of improvement
Martin: Nice tournament win over Texas Tech, they of the 7-14, 252 KenPom ranking?
Riley: I agree with Rob that we have looked a lot better than last year (I think we can all be thankful for that), but there have still been areas of concern. I'm not as concerned as many people are about having a lot of the same problems, because we have a lot of the same primary players. I figured we would be improved solely because of the "addition by subtraction" theory. This goes along with the "culture change" that Ron Wellman and Jeff Bzdelik are attempting to implement that many fans have continued to get jokes out of. We are certainly not where we need to be, and the word frustrating that Bart uses is pretty accurate, but I think we are laying the groundwork that we need to lay down to be successful in years to come.
Robert: I agree it's not the same thing as beating Texas in the tournament two years ago, but, it is a sign of improvement. Last year we had eight wins and lost to Presbyterian at home. You can say we lost to Wofford, but it's becoming more and more clear how good of a player CJ Harris is. I'm proud of that Texas Tech victory.
Riley: It has become increasingly clear that any win this year is a good win given the current state of the program. I think we can all agree on that.
Martin: But isn't that a problematic statement in and of itself, Riley?
Bart: Yeah the Texas Tech win wasn't a marquee win but it was better than a loss that's for sure. Minus the Wofford loss we managed to avoid any horrific Presbyterian/Stetson type losses this year, which is good
Riley: Not particularly, because most rational people knew what type of year this would be. We have managed to avoid the embarrassing losses that were in Coach Bzdelik's first year, and have seen significant improvement in areas that were very problematic next year.
Martin: Most rational predictions (and models) had the team at 12-15 wins, with a soft non-conference schedule in a down year in the ACC. Wake will most likely hit that mark, but not improve on that. All three of you have mentioned significant or noticeable improvement. Aside from avoiding embarrassing non-conference losses, where are you seeing this improvement coming from? The team has lost six of seven (with the lone win coming to Boston College, KenPom's 263rd-ranked team) by an average of 18 points.
Bart: I think people continue to forget how dreadfully bad we really were last year.
Riley: The non-conference schedule this year was 44 spots harder in KenPom than last years (305 to 261). That's still not a good non-conference schedule, but we went 9-5 against the OOC schedule, and for a team coming off of an 8-24 record, that is at least moving in the right direction.
Bart: Not to mention one of those five losses was a game we almost undoubtedly would have won against Wofford had CJ Harris played.
Robert: I see a lot of improvement from individual players. We just looked at the numbers, and both C.J. Harris and Tony Chennault have improved their turnover rate considerably. We've also seen a lot of progress out of Ty Walker. Who would have thought he would have turned into this kind of a defensive force? Daniel Green has also matured throughout the season. He had a very solid game against Carolina, and I look for him to get better. I think going from 8 to 12 or 13 wins is a very solid improvement. You can say we've lost six out of seven, which is factual, but that was a very difficult schedule. Most teams would lose against Duke, Carolina, Florida State, and at Clemson. The second half of the conference season is going to be very telling. I believe we will beat Boston College and have very solid chances against Georgia Tech and Clemson.
Martin: So the bad apples are gone, the players who are still here are improving (as they are supposed to), and the team will have more wins. But what else? What about the coaching? Are you sufficiently pleased with the job that Jeff Bzdelik has done as head coach of the Demon Deacons?
Riley: The coaching has definitely been a hot topic of concern for Wake Forest fans (and with good reason). While I am not happy about the vigor of the comments being displayed towards him about things that are not basketball-related, his track record as a coach is certainly something that is not working in his favor. I will say that I expected Coach Bzdelik to be a much better X's and O's guy because that is what we heard from everybody when he was coming in. Although there have been certain spans of time that we have played good offensive basketball, it has not been consistent. The ACC season so far has not been kind to him as well.
Bart: Yeah I think a lot of the individual improvement simply stems from being with the program and maturing as they get older. That is not to take anything away from Bzdelik who as head coach deserves recognition for aiding this improvement, but I think that we could have improved slightly more up to this point than we have. Whether or not this is on the coach, the players, or the Boogieman who knows. I will say that I am not sufficiently pleased with the job Bzdelik has done here for a couple of reasons: we continue to lack an offensive identity and we continue to struggle with some of the most basic fundamentals (running a fast break, bouncing the ball off our own feet). Teams with far less talent than we have are running offenses statistically better than what Wake is able to produce under Wake. We brought up Austin Peay earlier, well they're 44 spots ahead of us in adjusted offensive efficiency and there's just no way they have better talent/skill positions/fundamentals than the players that Wake Forest has at our disposal.
Robert: I'm not going to call Bzdelik Coach K, but I'm not going to throw him under the bus either as some of our fans have done. I truly do think our players (as a whole) lack the offensive skillset required to be a great offensive team. We have players who are either undersized or under-talented, and that is not Bzdelik's fault. I know Carolina is an exception, but their length is just exceptional. It's top 3 in the country, yet somehow we were still able to move the ball OK against them. I do think Bzdelik is close to maximizing the talent we have on the floor. We can get open looks, which is a result of coaching, but we just can't always convert shots, which is on the players. To me, I don't think you can truly answer this question until next season. With the recruiting class we have coming in, next year is a true make or break year for Coach Bzdelik.
Martin: Why can't you answer this question until next season? What evidence in Jeff Bzdelik's prior track record, aside from two hot years (that flamed out) at Air Force with someone else's players, give you hope that he get Wake Forest higher than a middle of the pack ACC team before he gets tired of being here and bolts, as he has done numerous times in the past?
Robert: With regards to the bolting, I can't blame him for bolting in the past. If you were an advanced scout and had the opportunity to become an NBA coach, wouldn't you take it? Then he gets the opportunity to go to Air Force, he does well and gets the opportunity to go to a BCS program. That's difficult to turn down. Then he had the opportunity to come to a school with a very solid basketball tradition in Wake Forest. I can't blame any of his decisions. I can't answer this question because I believe that coaches can only do so much. Ultimately I think players decide the outcomes. I also see it in the recruiting class. Next year I believe we can be a top four team in the conference.
Bart: Yeah, I don't blame Bzdelik for coming here, as I've said a lot in the past I blame Ron Wellman for hiring him.
Martin: In your opinion, was Jeff Bzdelik the right or a good hire for Wake Forest?
Rob: I don't know if there is any right hire, but I think he was a good hire. Do I wish we had landed a Brad Stevens or a Tom Izzo? Sure, but I think he will be a fine transitional coach. He appears to be a solid hire given where our program was. Dino Gaudio had below average knowledge of X's and O's and was also recruiting players that had questionable character and that ultimately were going to struggle to succeed academically at a school like Wake Forest. Bzdelik is recruiting players who will be good fits for our school, which will help them have more success on the basketball court. I support the hire.
Martin Rickman: Bart? Riley?
Riley: I agree with Rob, there is no "right hire" for any school. There can be good fits and bad fits depending on what the school is emphasizing in terms of academics, character, and athletics (and their priorities), but I don't think that every school has a certain coach that would do well only at their school. Contrary to what many people may think, I do not believe that Jeff Bzdelik was a good hire given the situation. I know for a fact that we went through a couple of other high profile guys before hiring our current coach, and I think Ron Wellman banked on the fact that we would be able to get them. When they fell through (for one reason or another), I think that he panicked and went to somebody that he knew in Jeff Bzdelik. This is not because they were "best friends" as some believe, but rather because he knew Jeff Bzdelik had a strong track record in terms of basketball knowledge, and would bring the type of environment that was necessary to establish long term success in Winston-Salem. In my opinion it was a hasty process, and one that should have been more inclusive, rather than a one man show. I do think that Ron Wellman underestimated how much the fan base would get up in arms over a poor hire. He has certainly built up a capital with the Orange Bowl to make a mistake here and there, but this could go down as a pretty big failure if Coach Bzdelik does not turn this ship around in the next year or two.
Now that I'm off that soapbox, I will answer the other part of the question. I think that Jeff Bzdelik is a great fit for what we are trying to lay down here at Wake Forest. Yes we found success under Skip Prosser and Dino Gaudio, but what were the costs? We still failed in the postseason, and we had some embarrassing off the court incidents that cast a black shadow on a once proud basketball program. I think that Jeff Bzdelik, if given the proper time, can develop a program that will make the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis, as well as win in the tournament. Even if he is a transition coach, I think the foundation will be laid for the next up-and-coming coach to take us to the promised land.
Sorry for the long answer, but I wanted to get all of this out of my system so people know what I really think instead of what they want to make up.
Bart: I don't think he was anywhere close to a good hire for Wake Forest. He sort of inexplicably came on the radar during the hiring process. I thought he was a good filler name to put out in the press release after we hired someone else as in "Wake Forest also interviewed Tubby Smith, Shaka Smart, and Jeff Bzdelik before ultimately deciding on X" but that's about as far as I would want or expect Wake to be linked with Bzdelik. As it is though we hired him, and not to relive the saga that was the weekend after Dino's firing, but we hired him relatively quickly without pursuing more than two other options. Bzdelik's message and demeanor doesn't resonate with the age group playing college basketball and I think half the battle for college coaches is leveling with and "getting" the players. I am intrigued to see next year's recruiting class though which appears to be solidly pieced together.
Martin: To talk a little bit more about the recruiting class, Rob mentioned that he believes that class could make Wake a "Top 4" team next year. It includes six recruits, two of whom are in the ESPN Top 100 (Codi Miller-Mcintyre and Arnaud Moto) along with Devin Thomas, who is having a stellar senior season, Aaron Rountree, Tyler Cavanaugh and Andre Washington. Assuming that CMM and Moto make instant impacts, and Thomas offers productive minutes as well, that still leaves a lot to be desired on a team that will have lost senior Walker and another senior in Nikita Mescheriakov. Are there enough playmakers to help this team do anything more than go .500 next season?
Bart: Well if CMM comes in right away and starts at point guard which nearly every recruiting analyst and Wake supporter expects/wants to see and then Moto can get a decent amount of playing time at the 3 with Travis playing a hybrid 3/4, this will leave us a lineup of : CMM, Harris, Moto, McKie, and Thomas inside. I think that with a base of senior CJ and junior Travis combined with some energetic freshmen and backup role players like Fischer and Chennault, there is no reason to believe that Wake can't make a run at the NIT in the least. Next year will be a huge year for Bzdelik. If he can get a lot out of his guys and they gel to play some good basketball, I'll be very pleased (and slightly surprised). If we end up around 14-16 and things don't look good, Bzdelik has to be gone.
Robert: Absolutely. CMM, Moto, Thomas, and Rountree should be solid contributors immeditately, and I believe CMM and Thomas will be more than just solid contributors. Combine that with CJ, Travis, Carson, Tony, Chase, and Green coming back, then we start having some actual depth. You combine that with what I believe will be another down ACC year and I don't see why we can't go 9-7 or 10-6 in conference and win 20 games overall. I would guarantee and NIT berth and think we are very strong candidates to make the NCAA Tournament.
Martin: Guarantee seems a little strong. Freshmen are freshmen. I feel as though this class, although well-rounded and deep, is being overhyped. The fact remains there are still no Top 50 players in this class. Whether they help or not, I worry that people are putting too much on them.
Bart: That certainly also speaks to where you would be on Bzdelik if expectations are either not met, or not even close to met does it not?
Robert: Bart, to answer your question: If Coach Bzdelik goes 14-16 or 15-15, then he would absolutely deserve to be fired.
Riley: I am in the middle here on the recruiting class. I think that they are good fits for the system that they are coming in to and they also bring the necessary skill sets to remedy our major problems right now (point guard play, and rebounding). I don't think that they necessarily need to have pressure on them to save the program from unfathomable depths or anything like that. They just need to come in to Wake Forest and play the game of basketball. Everything else will take care of itself. I fully expect CMM to take over the 1 spot next year. This is not a slap in the face to Tony Chennault, but rather an affirmation is how good Codi is going to be for us. I also expect Devin Thomas to step in at the 4. He has been absolutely unstoppable on the boards in his senior season, and I think that he will bring that toughness and intensity to Mother So Dear next year. A starting lineup of CMM, CJ, Travis, Devin, and Carson sounds pretty good to me. I definitely think that the NIT should be expected, and I would also like to be bubblicious next year come March. If Coach Bzdelik still has the team at 14-15 wins entering then ACC Tournament, then I think it will be time to move on. Anything around 17-18 wins would be enough to indicate to me that we are moving in the right direction, because the NCAA Tournament in two years is the next stop.
Rob: In my opinion, CMM is absolutely a top 50 player. I was so impressed when I saw him play at the Carolina Challenge and I think he'll be a very good player from day one. He's not Kyrie Irving, but he will be a great addition to our lineup and will really improve our offense.
Bart: I agree Marty, freshmen are mercurial (to borrow a phrase from Skip). They look like all-stars some nights and look like scrubs some nights. I'm concerned about the status of the 2013 class though which I was excited about early on with rumors of us being on the Gill/McClinton train, but the more (or less in this case) I hear about it, the more concerned I am.
Martin: I'm not knocking the kids. I am trying to be realistic. Look at Austin Rivers. He was supposed to be a can't-miss, one-and-done lottery pick coming out of high school, and he has had good games and bad games. We don't have a player with the pedigree of Rivers, we have guys who should be able to provide a solid base for the future and help an experienced rotation. Instead, they're being asked to be saviors for a program that is on life support. Those heightened expectations are a recipe for disaster. Talking about the rotation for the future, Bart, I think you are on the right track.
Depending on potential transfers (which we will get to later), you are looking at CMM & Chennault at PG with CJ Harris spelling, Harris & Fischer at SG with Rountree, McKie & Moto at SF/PF with Cavanaugh offering depth and Thomas & Desrosiers at the C position. Unless Fischer, Harris or McKie make a big jump, or the light comes on for Chennault or Desrosiers, I don't see an extra eight wins on the roster there. Too much talent walked out (or was forced out) the door after last season, and not enough has been replaced. Completely whiffing on 2011 recruiting is a big part of that. But, again, that's just me. Looking down the road at 2013, we're not in it with any playmakers, while we will be losing arguably our best player in Harris.
Bart: That's a really good point. I do think that there are an extra 5-6 wins coming out of adding some freshmen skill players to the current main core of McKie and Harris, but I don't know what else to expect. I'm excited about next year though. I can't wait to get this class of 2012 into a Deacon uniform. I'm not excited about Bzdelik's offensive schemes and ideas (which are IMO his biggest downfall so far) but I am excited overall for not getting beat by 15+ every time out.
Martin: I agree. I think we see a lot of close losses next year. But, even being competitive in ACC games would be a relief. That's the point I was trying to make earlier when I asked Riley about his comment about the "state of the program." We have dug ourselves a hole in which merely being competitive seems like night and day from last year. That's a problem, in my opinion. If you are going to make a culture change, you make a calculated risk. You make sure you hire someone who will absolutely succeed. Instead, getting back to the status quo is a hard, tough battle, and the rebuild gets harder the longer it takes.
There used to be a natural recruiting boost for just being Wake Forest. Top players would list the school because of the pedigree of the players who went there, of the exciting fan base, of playing in the Joel, of playing for Skip Prosser. That advantage has largely been negated, and now instead of recruiting against Duke, UNC and State, we are fighting against CAA teams, Virginia Tech and Clemson. The program has set the ceiling at sixth place in the ACC with anything better as a bonus, rather than setting the team up to be above that with a tough year as an aberration.
The second half of the Coffee Talk will be published Sunday.