The men's and women's basketball teams at Wake Forest University had both enjoyed successful non-conference portions of their respective schedules prior to the holidays, but after pivotal tests for both this past weekend, only one team still carries any positive momentum heading into ACC play.
Trouble Up North
The Wake Forest Demon Deacons that sport the Y chromosome have spent most of the season within the friendly confines of Joel Coliseum, save for a Thanksgiving trip to the Bahamas and the Battle 4 Atlantis. To boot, the schedule-makers front-loaded the slate for the young Deacs with Citadels and Tulanes and Bonaventures, resulting in a rash of (much-needed) wins and, one would assume, confidence headed into the ACC schedule.
So it was that the Deacs and their dubious preseason record finally played a true road game Saturday evening in Cincinnati, falling to a tough and disciplined Xavier team, 68-53 in a game essentially decided by halftime.
Xavier held Wake Forest scoreless from the field for the final 9:30 of the first half, while mounting a 16-0 run of their own to give the Muskies a comfortable margin with which to work for the remainder of the game. Xavier manhandled the Deacs on the boards, 50-34, while the Deacons remain their own worst enemy at the free throw line, shooting 48% for the game.
It is one thing to lose to a better team on the road, but this band of Demon Deacons appeared listless and lethargic over the last 30 minutes of Saturday's contest, save for a brief flurry late as the clock ticked down. Despite having a similar experience earlier in the season against Tennessee, the Deacons appeared unprepared to play in a game that not only featured tough post players, but also honored a beloved former Wake Forest coach.
Holiday rust be damned, the 10-3 record earned against the likes of Presbyterian and Colgate is suddenly a thing of the past, replaced with a fear that this year's trek through the ACC will bear similar fruit to prior years.
Next up for the men is the Jekyll and Hyde act of the North Carolina Tar Heels, who have lost to Belmont but beaten anyone with the gall to have a little number beside its name. Despite their quirkiness (and lack of P.J. Hairston) they still have better athletes than most teams in the country. They are versatile, quick basketball players who fit nicely with coach Roy Williams' attacking style.
Oh, and they rebound. With a vengeance.
Should the Wake Forest post players flinch once again in the face of an aggressive gaggle of rebounders, their turn on national television Sunday night could quickly turn the Deacs once again into the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.
Wherever the fault for Saturday's pratfall lies, the Deacon brain trust now has a week to circle the wagons so the Tar Heels (and the rest of the country) get to see the inspired buzz saw that came back to beat Richmond rather than the punch-drunk sparring partner that showed up in Cincy.
Fun in the Sun
While the men flailed about up North, their female counterparts went on a business trip to the FIU Sun & Fun Classic in Miami; edging the host Panthers (and last year's national scoring leader Jerica Coley) 86-79 Sunday afternoon as senior Chelsea Douglas broke the school scoring record with 48 points. Douglas made nine three-pointers, shattering her previous career-high of six.
The tournament championship was the first for the Deacs since 2008, and the first for second-year head coach Jen Hoover. The Deacs have now won five straight games to run their record to 9-4 on the season. For her efforts, Douglas was named tournament MVP and earned a spot alongside teammate Dearica Hamby on the All-Tournament team. To top off her grand weekend in Miami, Douglas was named the ACC's Player of the Week on Monday
The women also open up their ACC season next weekend, meeting coach Katie Meier's Miami Hurricanes on Saturday at LJVM Coliseum. The Hurricanes notched a 79-78 win in Winston last season, despite Douglas' 19-point effort. A win against Miami would be a tremendous boost for the Deacs, since a trip to national power Maryland looms just 5 days later.
Like the men's team, Hoover's group is laden with young players. Unlike the men, the ladies are replacing five seniors, three of whom started for the Deacs last season. Hoover, however, has the luxury of a senior point guard in Douglas who has flourished in her new system. Douglas and Hamby have thus far proved more than capable of leading a unit that is forced to play a lot of freshmen. Depth is an issue, and the Baby Deacs' learning curve had to be short.
Hope is Not a Strategy
In a few days, the ball will drop in Times Square and a new year will be upon us. Five straight losing seasons at BB&T Field yielded change at the top of the football program. A repeat of last year's conference performance for Jeff Bzdelik's charges might (and probably should) do the same for the basketball side of things. Despite its flaws, though, this Demon Deacon team has shown flashes of its potential. If we're honest, we know that last year's group would have folded if faced with this year's trouble against Richmond and St. Bonaventure.
They would have lost. Possibly in grand fashion.
But they didn't. They persevered, asserted themselves, and willed themselves into a 10-3 pre-conference record. That, in anyone's book, should be a sign of progress. However, the real test begins on Sunday night against the hated team from Chapel Hill. Lose, and the refrain from the fans grows (deservedly) ever louder. Win, and the Deacs suddenly have something they've lacked for a few seasons now: upward momentum.