Thanks to Bob Hebert and all of his excellent photos of Wake Forest Sports that can be found @ www.bobhebertphoto.com
I have been a Wake Forest fan for my entire life (nearly 22 years), and for the second time in my storied career as a human being, I got the chance to sit directly behind the Wake Forest basketball bench to witness an ACC basketball game. The first time, if my memory serves correctly, was on my ninth birthday (February 28th, 1999), when Wake Forest took on the N.C. State Wolfpack. Sophomore guard Robert O'Kelley led all in scorers with 24 points en route to a huge 74-45 victory over the visiting Wolfpack.
This game was a little bit different in terms of the stakes at hand. In that game the Deacs were looking to perhaps grab a surprise 2012 NCAA Tournament bid with some momentum in the ACC Tournament. As it turned out, Wake lost a quick turnaround rematch in the first round of the ACCT to the Wolfpack, 66-52, to end their NCAAT hopes. They did grab an NIT berth where they defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide 73-57 in the Joel before falling to Xavier five days later, 87-76.
The Wake Forest-Georgia Tech game featured two ACC cellar-dwellers looking to stay out of the dreaded 12th place spot in the standings. It was also likely one of the ugliest ACC games that has taken place in the LJVM since it opened in 1989. The teams combined to shoot a woeful 35% from the field (37/106) and 29% (11/38) from behind the three-point line.
The night was salvaged by Travis McKie in the second half when he took over the game and led the Deacs to their third ACC victory of the year by a score of 59-50. Although the win clearly doesn't rank up there at all in terms of big Wake Forest victories, it should be enough to keep Wake out of the cellar barring an odd turn of events in the last three ACC games this year.
What follows are some of the thoughts that Rob and I discussed after our night on the Wake Forest bench.
Click through the jump to get some first-hand thoughts at what actually goes down on the Wake bench during games.
We got to the game about thirty minutes early and met with a couple of sports marketing people to ensure that we were in fact who we claimed to be. After we cleared that obstacle, we were led to what would be our seats for the game (the secondary bench right behind the Wake Forest home bench). While we did not sit on the the actual front row, I was close enough to be able to reach out and touch Ryan Keenan or Brooks Godwin, who were sitting right in front of me. That allowed us to get great insight on the walk-ons thoughts during the game, which were admittedly one of the highlights.
Once everybody got warmed up the players took their seats for the national anthem. Assistant coach Jeff Battle came over to talk to us for a couple of minutes and introduce himself. He was very well spoken and seemed confident about the teams chances on the night.
One of the first things that we noticed was how pumped up the team was. I was not one who thought the Deacs had mailed in their season by any means, but I was almost taken aback at how positive and ready to go everybody was from the coaching staff down to the walk-ons. It was very refreshing to see and hear something that can be taken for granted considering the losing streak that the Deacs were on at that point.
It became obvious quickly that Ryan Keenan and Brooks Godwin are the vocal leaders of the bench and subsequently the team. That might be one of the problems when it comes to those who are actually playing, but all night long they were constantly talking to players, calling out screens and giving out high fives and advice. It may seem like a stretch to say that the team will be hurt without their leadership next year, but it will definitely take somebody else to step up and become that leader on the team/bench.
The most interesting thing early on was the intensity in which the Wake Forest 2-3 defense was attacking. It can often times be pretty hard to tell from the student sections (or really anywhere else) how hard a team was playing and hustling, but from right behind the bench there was no doubt at the effort being put out there.
The communication from the bench to the court was more than I expected (in terms of players and coaching staff), but it was hard to tell how much talking there was going on between the players on the court. After Georgia Tech opened up the game with a three from the top of the key by Mfon Udofia, the players and coaching staff all pretty much burst out laughing because Udofia was 0-16 from the field his last two games. One of the walk-ons said something to the effect of, "of course he would make that against us."
The gameplan defensively was also pretty clear from the beginning -- give Georgia Tech the three-point shots and make them beat the zone by shooting out of it. Georgia Tech seemed as content to shoot the three as we were to allow them to shoot it, which was a bit puzzling.
It was hard to tell what Coach Gregory was saying to his players, but there certainly was not a ton of (purposeful) movement going on. From time to time their big guy Miller would get in the soft spot in the middle of the zone, but it would be called out from the bench exactly what they were doing. There were several cuts behind the zone for the Yellow Jackets, but the guys down low closed it off pretty well and double-teamed when necessary.
I know a lot of people are interested to hear what the coaching staff was doing on the bench and while we heard a fair amount, it was often hard to hear what Coach Bzdelik (specifically was saying) from where we were down on the bench. I do know that during timeouts he was very positive before he would tell the huddle what he wanted them to do.
Whenever a substitute came out (for whatever reason), pretty much every member of the coaching staff would say something to him about what he was doing right and what he could continue to work on. Once they sat down and got rested, the players would talk among themselves about what was going on.
I'm not an expert on walk-on demeanor, but if the Wake Forest walk-ons this year don't rank in the Top 25 of overall walk-ons (not just talent obviously), then I would be very surprised. Not only were they extremely positive and knowledgeable about the game, but they often times knew exactly what was going to occur on the court. I'm sure that is a combination of being around practices and basketball for a long time, but the coaching staff did a pretty good job of letting them know what was going on as well.
The walk-ons were also very, very funny. They were constantly riding the refs (especially about the elusive travel, which seemed to be outside of the referees basic understanding of the rules of basketball). Several times they also yelled out things that I would not think would be yelled from a team bench (same with the managers that were sitting right next to us as well). It was really good to see the emotions coming from the bench as they were.
One of the things that definitely could use some work is some of the individuals that get down on themselves after something they do/don't do on the court. Often times somebody would be subbed out after doing something wrong, and they would just have their head down. Brooks seemed to be the guy that would single them out and talk to them and tell them to keep their head up. A coaching staff member would also get next to them and talk to them about what was going on. After that, the player would seemingly cheer up and be ready to go out there again.
As a quick interlude, we got to speak with Randolph Childress at halftime (who was very gracious and cordial). He had some funny things to say about constantly getting pulled away from the game to do an interview here and there. He took the time out his schedule to single us out and speak with us for a few minutes, which really goes to show you how exemplary of a guy he is. Here are a couple of college students who he has no need to talk up or anything, and he still shoots the wind with us for a few minutes. Pretty awesome time for me who grew up idolizing him for what he did on the hardwood for Wake Forest.
The funniest thing that probably happened during our stint there was when Nikita dunked the ball as the game wound down. One of the players (who shall remain nameless, but is an integral player) turned around and asked us in no lame terms who dunked the ball. After the answer, he happened to be right next to Coach Gregory for the postgame handshake where he said point blank, "I apologize for the actions of my teammate Coach." Not only was it completely sincere, but it was also absolutely hilarious because Coach Gregory seemingly didn't care at all and he only wanted to talk about how well that player had played during the game.
Another incident that occurred was after Georgia Tech went on their 10-0 run to turn a seven point deficit at the half into a three point lead. One of the players (who shall once again remain nameless, but can probably be ascertained by checking the play-by-play and finding out who would have been angry at this point) came over to the bench and just destroyed a chair by kicking it into the railing behind the bench. It was both startling and humorous at the same time, but I absolutely loved seeing the emotions that the guys were showing out on the court.
For those that want to know about the coaching schemes and how the coaches did, I will do my best to answer that based on our time there. The staff clearly had a great idea of what they wanted to force Georgia Tech into when the Yellow Jackets had the ball (shoot threes), and it turned out to be a great move with the 2-3 zone. The constant pressure and double teaming inside made it very difficult for Miller to get anything going in there and also forced a lot of long passes over the zone to a guy across the court.
The coaching staff constantly reiterated to the players what was expected of them on the defensive end, and it was responded to very well. On the offense end it was a little bit different because it was hard to tell what exactly the gameplan was. The staff and walk-ons had to yell "HARD CUTS," or just "MOVE" on offense. The only thing that I could tell for sure was that we definitely wanted to hit the backdoor cuts more and move off of the ball, but it seemed like the players just expected somebody else to take over and do something (which Travis fortunately did in the second half).
Another thing that I will add is that all of Chase Fischer's shots (sans one that I believe was on the other side of the court) looked like they were going in. He took two or three right in front of us and the rotation that was on the ball, as well as the angle that it was going towards the rim at looked like a swish shot every time. The one that he hit didn't look any different at all, it was just a little shorter than the ones that he had taken before (all of his previous ones were long).
Also, the effort that Tony Chennault displays on both sides of the court is truly commendable. I know that he has drawn the ire of the fans a lot this year (and admittedly some for good reason), but one thing that I never want to hear is whether or not he is trying his hardest. Several times there wasn't anything there on the offensive end because of lack of movement, and he had to drive in and take a layup. While he misses his fair share of them, he surprised me at least three times by his ease to maneuver in traffic in the lane. Once he figures out how to finish around the rim, I honestly think that he can be a role player for us in the future. He also kept several possessions alive by getting on the offensive boards and being in the right place at the right time because of his hustle.
The last thing is about how well the sound carried down to the bench. Obviously there were not a lot of people at the game, but some of the things that people yelled from the lower bowl that reached the players and coaching staff was despicable. The players could clearly hear it, and several times it was commented on by the bench. Not a huge concern, but I was surprised at some of the things people close to the court would yell at 18 to 22-year-old basketball players.
I'm sure there are several questions that people will have, and I welcome all of them in the comments section (or you can shoot me an e-mail with your questions, and I will do my best to answer them to the best of my ability). Overall, I was fairly impressed with the demeanor of the bench and the team, and while the team certainly has had their struggles this year, I thought the resolve that was shown was great to see.
Also, if I left anything out then I'll come back and add it, but I think I hit most of the key points on our experience. I would recommend it to anybody that can get down there because it truly looks like a different game than sitting from even 10-15 rows up.