"We're winning. No, better than that, we've been in control for much of the game. We look like the better team. Good, this is good. This is different. I've been waiting for this."
Minutes pass, and those formerly rational and cautiously optimistic thoughts have made way for anger, hurt, frustrationand a string of profanities, most thought, but a few spoken (only in private). I am sad, confused, and feeling utterly powerless to do anything but watch and accept. This is currently the norm for fans of Wake Forest men's basketball. And it's brutal.
It's impossible to deny that there have been many problems facing the program the last few seasons that are beyond anyone's control, or at the very least are created by a complex mixture of factors. Injuries, transfers, off-court drama and turmoil, and of course no shortage of humiliating blow outs. On one hand, stuff happens. That's part of life. On the other, such things can also be symptomatic of things that can also be controlled.
There is, most assuredly, some good news. The team has stretches of brilliant play. The roster is young and very talented. Our team is made up of young men with seemingly fantastic attitudes and no shortage of fire. There have been reasons to cheer this year, reasons to hope. Yet still, problems remain, and we have a responsibility as fans and as lovers of Wake Forest University and the Demon Deacons to not ignore said problems.
Two games in a row, Wake Forest has looked like the superior team for much of the game and had leads late, only to absolutely blow it in the end and lose on free throws. I can't remember, before this season, the last time we lost any game at the free throw line late, let alone twice in a row against teams that I genuinely believe, with all due respect to all parties involved, we had no business losing to.
After the most recent one point loss at home to Georgia Tech, Coach Jeff Bzdelik said in his post-game interview with the IMG radio crew that "[the losing trend] is a we problem, but it starts at the top." Coming from a man who, whether rightfully or not, has earned a reputation for deflecting criticism and responsibility in difficult times, it was surprising to me personally, and was a refreshing bit of candor from the much beleaguered head coach. I've always had more sympathy and understanding for Coach Bzdelik than many people in the fan base, but I would also be entirely disingenuous if I said my frustrations haven't been growing. Still, this notion of the "We Problem" was something I agreed with and appreciated being expressed.
If it is a "We Problem", there are layers to it. Obviously, some of the onus falls on the players. There will be blown assignments, there will be missed shots. There will be instances of guys not fighting through screens, or getting out-hustled for rebounds. Also, it is a young team. There are going to be growing pains, and surely it is more difficult to win with seven freshmen than seven seniors. That's just a fact of the sport.
But leadership is also a layer. I'm not manufacturing this fact, it's not a personal attack on anyone, and Coach Bzdelik said it himself. I'm just saying the same thing the man himself said. It's true, too. A coach, especially in college, is to be a leader of men. A coach needs to be a teacher, a mentor, a motivator, maybe even sometimes a drill sergeant. I've never coached, but I'd imagine it's a painfully delicate balance that takes a truly special individual to master. That's a big part of why I have so much respect for coaches all around the country at every level. But the job of the coach is to try to wrestle away the other parts of the "We Problem". Coach Bzdelik said so himself.
All I'm saying is this. The current season, while perhaps better than the last two, still is concerning. I don't think there is a single person involved in this entire Wake Forest family, from fans to players to coaches to administrators, who would suggest that things, as they are in this current moment in time, are acceptable. Is it possible good things can still happen? Well, yes. I certainly didn't expect us to win the NC State game, or to not allow Duke any significant breathing room in 40 minutes of basketball in the Joel. Who knows? Maybe we'll beat Miami and show that yes, there is the promise of a team that can hang with anyone in the nation. Absolutely no one would love that more than I would.
However, if things continue how they are now, the harsh reality is that that's just not a recipe for consistent success in the ACC, something that Wake Forest is absolutely capable of and should strive for. In order to reach the place the program should be, something needs to change.
It could be we start winning and get on a hot streak to end the year. That would be fantastic. It could also be, however, that other questions will arise, and if they do, I want to hope that those in positions to do so will take honest evaluations of those questions and figure out the best way to move forward as a singular entity -- as a family -- even if it involves difficult or painful decisions.
I bear no one any ill will, and everyone deserves a chance to make the most of every opportunity given on their own merits, but the results of those efforts, however admirable and honest in nature, deserve to be evaluated fairly and objectively with the ultimate objective being continued success at the highest level of college athletics.