So the regular season is over. It ended in a way that, in my estimation, is a microcosm of the state of the program, but I'll get to that in a little bit. The season ended in a way that, in my opinion, should not have happened, and regardless of where the blame goes (and it should go in a number of places; there's plenty to go around), it was a poor reflection on the team and the program. I don't want to say any party involved is a disgrace to the University (something I have heard bandied about by some individuals with regards to some parties) because I frankly find that disgusting. Everyone involved is trying, and the fact is that they all want to serve the school I love so much and represent it well. I don't think anyone's intentions in this scenario can be brought into question. Even more, I can say there have been moments that I've been genuinely proud of the team. But whatever the reasons, things aren't working right now, and it's difficult for me to sit back and not express that fact. So I'm going to do just that.
In the meat of this piece, I'm going to do my best to write from 2 different perspectives, to lay out the pros and cons if you will, and then I'll follow that up and express exactly where my personal feelings lie, what I hope will happen going forward, what I think will happen, and what we can try to do as a suffering fan base to deal with the current realities.
Read more after the jump..."It's the players/not the coaches/it will get better/trust in the administration!"
It absolutely can never be said that Coach Jeff Bzdelik did not inherit a difficult situation. First. Tony Woods leaves under horrible circumstances in the offseason before he got to show his stuff on the court. Additionally, Tony Chennault, the only true PG on the roster, broke his foot and was gone for most of the year. Melvin Tabb struggled with mono. There was only one senior on the roster and only two juniors. The roster was frankly a patchwork of young players frequently out of position under a first year head coach with a complex situation. Additionally, it can at least be inferred from some of the transfers and dismissals that have occurred that there were off-the-court struggles that occurred last year that would be difficult for any coach to handle. He lost his second leading scorer this off-season to circumstances beyond his control, in addition to losing an inside presence in Melvin Tabb. Furthermore, Ty Walker was gone the first half of this year with a suspension that was more than likely well deserved.
We're still an incredibly shallow team, and Tony Chennault, who is getting better in my opinion but still mightily struggles, is for all intents and purposes finishing up his freshman campaign. Truthfully, it's difficult to say that this year wasn't any better than last. Not only is our record better, and not only is our KenPom ranking better, we might not even finish at the bottom of the league, and were one win away today from being a 9 seed in the ACC tournament. We were predicted to finish second to last (as I recall) and there's actually STILL a chance we could be the 9 seed (BC needs to lose to Miami which they did, and VT needs to lose to NC State later tonight in Blacksburg). Whatever the case, we about matched preseason expectations from a sheer record/standings perspective or even slightly exceeded them, though admittedly a fair amount of that was on account of several teams doing WORSE than projected (primarily VT).
The team is undoubtedly better this year than last. Admittedly, it's going from historically bad to just pretty bad, but it shouldn't be ignored. First off, the records, flat out, 8-24 (1-15), vs. currently 13-17 (4-12) Last year, in terms of blowout losses (which for the sake of this article I will call a 15+ point loss) we had nine, in addition to five 14 point losses. This year, we have had seven blowouts and three 14 point losses. Last year we had three double-digit victories, the largest of which was 22 points. This year we had four double digit victories in addition to four nine point victories. Our largest margin this year was 29 points. Furthermore, our strength of schedule last year was 69, but a woeful 305 out of conference. This year, it was 71 overall, but a sizable jump to 245 out of conference. Of course, this also speaks to the down nature of the ACC this year, but it's still worth noting. This year we had 5 sub-100 KenPom losses (and Richmond is 106, so barely there) Last year, we actually only had 4 of those, but the ACC as a whole was much, MUCH better last year. In terms of victories, last year we had two top 100 victories (Virginia and Iowa), this year we had only one (VT) which frankly surprised me a little bit. Before this GT loss which frankly wasn't much worse than expected in terms of margin, we were 187 in the KenPom rankings. Last year, we were 251. Undoubtedly improvement.
There IS actually a case, believe it or not, for Jeff Bzdelik's ability to build a program, and I'm going to look no further than his last job with the Colorado Buffaloes. In his 3 years, he had seasons of 12-20 (3-13), 9-22 (1-15), and 15-16 (6-10). This job at the time was in the Big XII, which was/is a very very good conference, arguably the deepest depending on who you ask. Since he left, the Buffs have had seasons of 24-14 (8-8 Big XII) and an appearance in the NIT Semi-Finals, and currently 19-10 (11-6 in an admittedly AWFUL Pac-12). Of course, snarky comments can be made about addition by subtraction, but I think it's a fair statement to say that Jeff Bzdelik almost certainly had SOMETHING to do with the Buffs' current successes, modest though they may be by our standards.
More subjectively, there are aspects of the team's play on the court that appear to be improving. The team generally shows more composure, and less tendency to scramble to make big plays and turn the ball over for easy points on the other end for the other team. The sets seem to be run better on a general basis this year The team seems more able to go on runs this year (which unfortunately are usually runs to try and match those of our opponents). Frankly, in general I would argue that with a couple of exceptions (most notably Wofford and ASU, and probably this last game) we won most of the games we "should have", and even a couple we shouldn't (Virginia Tech, arguably Nebraska) The main point of ire for many, myself included, is the margin of loss and the quality of play more so than the actual W-L record. Of course, Jeff Bzdelik can't make shots or get rebounds for the players, either.
It's also worth noting, just in general, that Ron Wellman appears to really know what he's doing. I would argue that the state of nearly every program other than the one currently being discussed is okay to excellent. As a result of this generally strong track record and reputation, which is frankly well deserved, part of me (and all of some others) is taking a bit of an "In Ron We Trust" standpoint for now, which while not necessarily a popular opinion, is certainly a valid one. I certainly think that Wellman, while he currently holds a contentious opinion at present with regards to the basketball coaching situation, is an incredibly intelligent man who is great at his job and has the best interests of the school's athletics absolutely at heart.
"It's the coaching/make the administration pay!"
In this particular section, I'm going to avoid any "he ran players off" arguments since I frankly think that's a silly argument to make. I am of the opinion that the young men who have left the program, while it is frustrating and painful to have to go through it, made any unfortunate decisions of their own accord.
Having said that, there are plenty of arguments as to why we shouldn't be as bad as we are. We've got 2 of the best, most versatile players in the ACC, and while our roster is thin, it is undoubtedly made up of talented players. None of our mainstays was a 2* or lower. Travis McKie and Carson Desrosiers were 4* players. Tony Chennault, C.J. Harris, Daniel Green, Chase Fischer, and I believe Nikita Mescheriakov were all 3*. Ty Walker, while he admittedly clearly did not pan out, was a 5* recruit, so his raw talent is absolutely undeniable. While the ACC is a league full of teams that pull in good to excellent classes year in and year out, I would argue (and recent classes by star ratings would generally support this assertion) that Wake Forest is undoubtedly in the "second tier" of recruiting power. We're obviously underneath Duke, UNC, and as of late NC State, but every other ACC school, we are recruiting about the same (Maryland, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Florida State, Virginia Tech) or better than (Miami. Boston College, Clemson). The team is undoubtedly shallow, young, and has gaping holes in it, but the level of talent is certainly better on paper than our last couple of years may suggest.
I also don't need to tell anyone just how bad last year really was. You can hardly exclusively blame coaching, but any time a team made of 3, 4, and a 5 star caliber player manages to get 8 wins all year and narrowly avoids being the first team in the conference to ever go 0-16, well obviously it's going to raise an eyebrow. And as much as I talked about the improvements in the last section, the fact is we've lost by 15+ points 16 times, and 14 an additional eight. We've lost to 200+ KenPom squads (which should just never ever happen, ever) four times, and 150-200 squads an additional one, with Maryland this year coming in under the wire at 144. We've only had two better than 100 KenPom victories in two years.
I really hesitate to do this, but I'm going to look a little bit at Skip Prosser's post-Paul tenure. It's really not fair to expect Coach Bzdelik to perform how Skip did so early on in my opinion, but i think the two years after CP3 left before Skip's death are at least a decent analogue for the "MacGuyver-ing" that Coach Bzdelik has had to try to do with a depleted, far from ideal roster situation. 2006, the year after CP3's departure, the team was admittedly full of seniors, but they only got 3 ACC wins and ended up with an exactly even record, won 2 games in the ACC Tournament, and took the #1 KenPom team that year, Florida (eventual national champion as I recall) to the wire, losing only by 5 on a neutral court. The worst loss that year was to #96 Georgia Tech (on the road) and the best win was #45 NC State at home.
A much more fair analogy is 2007, where Justin Gray, Eric Williams, and Trent Strickland graduated, and we brought in the freshman class that included eventual Deac stars Ishmael Smith and L.D. Williams. plus Anthony Gurley, Jamie Skeen, and Dave Weaver. Between freshmen and sophomores, young players made up the entirety of KenPom's "Significant Contributors" category (20-24% of possessions used) which included four players. The next category down, which includes "Role Players" (16-20%) included two freshmen and a senior. The category below that (12-16%) included a freshman and a sophomore. You guys will have to forgive me, as I didn't follow recruiting back then, but as I recall, that incredibly young roster was pretty close to our current roster: many good, heralded players not expected to be elite, at least not without experience. That team posted a 14-15. 5-11 record with one win in the ACC tourney. Their worst loss was to #131 USF on the road by 8. Their best win was #17 (KenPom) Georgia Tech by 10 at home. They lost by 15 or more only twice that season. Their strength of schedule was 20th overall, 231 out of conference.
I really don't need to run down the Dino years. Those were recent enough that we all remember how much better they were, and they had vastly more talented rosters anyway. I really think 2007 is the closest analogy in recent memory to how things are now, and they're actually fairly comparable in many ways.
More subjectively, we really don't seem to make adjustments. We always get blazed coming out of halves. Our perimeter defense is terrible. As much as you can say that the coaches can't play for the players, which is true, I've also heard it said that players win games and coaches lose games, and that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Whether it's "the players' fault" or not, the fact remains that if this coaching staff was able to get through to the players, things would likely be better. Could some of it be, to co-opt a phrase from our coach, "lack of mental toughness"? Most assuredly some of it can, and some of it is, but not all of the accountability should be placed on the shoulders of 18-21 year old kids, especially not publicly and in the media.
"So SF, what's your point?": The Wrap-Up
My point is that the truth is somewhere in the middle. It's on the players, it's on the coaches, it's on the administration. But it is on everyone. I don't think many if any people expected Jeff Bzdelik to work miracles, but the strife is understandable and at least partly warranted, especially considering the sometimes almost glib deflection of responsibility by Coach and the administration.
I don't want anybody to be out of a job. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I think Jeff Bzdelik is a good, intelligent man who is really trying hard to turn things around. I also want our athletic department to remain stable at this juncture. Ron Wellman has done a strong enough job and has done enough for this university that he, in my estimation, has earned the right to "stick with it" for a while and let things play out.
I also don't expect miracles next year. It'll be a team with very very good but not elite freshmen getting a LOT of playing time. But I do expect improvement. There's a reason that many coaching contracts start out as three year contracts. Three years is usually a time frame to get a pretty darn strong foothold in a program. The roster will be deeper, and more experienced. In my opinion, next year is make or break for Coach Bzdelik. What your parameters are for "make" and "break" are subjective. But another year like this year is, in my opinion, rather inexcusable.
I honestly, truly hope that next year blows away all my expectations and that Jeff Bzdelik makes me eat crow when I say I'm not sure he's the Deacon coach of the future. I'll still buy season tickets. I'll still be in the stands cheering at every game. I'll still love the team. But I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't be watching very very closely.
The ball isn't in any of our hands. It's in the hands of the coaches, the players, and the administration at this point. But we'll see what they do with it.
So I realized, after thinking, that I wasn't done. I've been told by many Wake fans, particularly ones who have seen far more seasons than I, that I expect too much, that I get my hopes up too much, that I invest too much. We're Wake Forest. We're the underdogs. We'll never be Duke or UNC. And that's fine. But I resent the implication that because I hope for and expect success, that I just don't understand what it must be like to try and run a program. Most assuredly, I don't. But despite Wake's disadvantages, the program has been a mainstay of college basketball since the 90's. We need to temper our expectations, perhaps, but also not sell ourselves short. We ARE Wake Forest, and we ARE a cornerstone of ACC basketball. I will never be told otherwise.
Since 1991, Wake Forest has had 15 NCAA Tourney appearances, and as I recall, an NIT championship. 15 out of 21 years.