Into every life a little rain must fall, and if the same tenet is true for sports then the Wake Forest men's basketball program must fell completely drenched by now. The Demon Deacons, owners of three straight losing seasons, enter the 2013-14 season Friday night hoping to spread a little sunshine around the program and its fans with an exhibition win over the Brevard Tornados.
Head coach Jeff Bzdelik, once thought by some (and hoped by others) to be out of a job following last year's 13-18 showing, was retained by AD Ron Wellman without hesitation, putting both men on "hot seat" lists around the country as the season crept closer. It's no secret to either that the team needs to win, and win now.
For all the scrutiny, though, Bzdelik and his team have been the picture of confidence. Senior forward Travis McKie even remarked at Operation Basketball in Charlotte that his head coach showed no signs of bowing to the pressure.
"This is the most relaxed I've seen coach since he's been here," McKie said. "We're not worried about all that other stuff. We're worried about everybody on the team."
By "other stuff", McKie almost certainly means the increasing volume of dissatisfied Deacon fans, which reached a fever pitch during the first part of the year. In March, a group comprised of the most vocal supporters disenchanted with the basketball program took out ads during the ACC Tournament imploring Wake Forest to remove Bzdelik. Two months later, a billboard advertisement demanding the removal of Wellman appeared on the side of a busy North Carolina highway.
Despite the noise, however, the Deacs have quietly gone about the business of trying to get better as a team. That feat was made much easier this year by the lack of mass attrition that has plagued the program during the last few seasons.
"The continuity is a great thing," Bzdelik said. "There's a reference point. There's understanding and accountability. I'm very relaxed. I feel great. I'm very confident. I love my team- they're working really hard. They're coachable- no problems off the court. They're model citizens and I can just worry about coaching and that's a great thing."
One of the key components of Bzdelik's teaching this year is decision-making, an area he believes his young team fell short in last season. The Deacs have spent most of preseason working on making the right decisions in certain situations.
"A lot of our practice is designed to make decisions," Bzdelik said. "Five on four situations, three on two situations, two on one situations. Even five on five where coming off a ball screen two guys are playing you. Well, where's the open guy? You drive to the rim, there's somebody chasing you, the helper comes, where do you find the next guy?"
The key decision-maker on this team will be its sophomore point guard, Codi Miller-McIntyre. Miller-McIntyre told reporters earlier in October that he was challenged to become student of the game by his coaches. Bzdelik explained that not all players necessarily watch basketball once they leave the court.
"Not everybody watches the NBA or college basketball. In fact, there's a lot of players that don't watch games. And if they watch games, they're watching the dunk or the ESPN highlight. They're not really watching the off the ball defense or the screening, reading the screen, decision-making and playing under control."
Bzdelik says that Miller-McIntyre has invested a significant amout of time in studying the game this offseason.
"Codi now has learned, because he really wants to be a player, ‘If I want to be a player then I've got to be a student of the game and study the game and every day come in and watch film.' And really watch the game in a different light than he used to."
With Miller-McIntyre at the point, Bzdelik will lean heavily on McKie to complement the young guard by doing what Bzdelik says, "he does best."
"What he needs to do is be the ultimate garbage player," Bzdelik says. "And I mean that in a positive, respectful way. He's got to score like he normally does in a variety of ways, with some offensive put-backs, some running the court hard for some transition layups and getting fouled. Through that he should get himself 10-11 points alone without even taking a jump shot. Throw in a couple of jump shots and you've got yourself 15-16 points a game."
There was much wringing of hands in Winston-Salem this Summer when the Demon Deacons' basketball schedule was released. The Deacs start with five games at home against Colgate, VMI, Presbyterian, Jacksonville and the Citadel before heading to the Bahamas to meet Kansas in the three-game Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. After Thanksgiving, the Deacs play four more home games before wrapping their non-conference schedule at Xavier on December 28. I asked Bzdelik where he expected his team to be before flying off to the Bahamas. He was succinct in his response:
"Five and oh."
"To not be that would not be a good thing. And I'm not saying that out of disrespect- please know that. I'm just saying that if we want to get to where we want to get to, well, we've got to do that. One of the things that we want to do is break our season down into various seasons so we don't get overwhelmed by looking ahead. For example, Season One is simply our first five games at home. Let's not think about Kansas or the Battle 4 Atlantis. That's in another season. But we've got a five-game Season One at home and we need to go undefeated in that season. We do."
The Deacs are one year older, and hopefully one year wiser as the curtain opens Friday night. Wake Forest fans won't know much their team after this glorified scrimmage, especially since the Deacs will be without McKie (ankle sprain) and the still-sidelined Daniel Green and Greg McClinton. One can probably anticipate much shuffling of lineups, multiple substitutions and with the new NCAA crackdown on physical play, multiple fouls.
In the end, we probably won't know much about this team until they return from the Bahamas, and even then we'll only know a little. Bzdelik knows that his team needs to be playing in a postseason tournament this year to call off the hounds, and to do so they are probably going to need to make the most of the pre-Christmas schedule before perennial power North Carolina comes to town on January 5 to open the ACC season.
In any event, it's still November 1st. The Demon Deacons are undefeated. There is hope in most parts of Tie-Dye Nation.
Welcome to college basketball.