Is the sun rising for Jeff Bzdelik’s Wake Forest program? Or is it setting?
A case could probably be made either way.
Bzdelik is in his third season at Wake Forest. His first two Wake teams went 8-24 and 13-18, a combined 5-27 in the ACC.
It’s not like Bzdelik inherited a woeful program. Wake made the two previous NCAA Tournaments prior to Bzdelik’s arrival from Colorado.
But discipline had slipped under Dino Gaudio. Seven players have left the program since Bzdelik arrived, several under legal clouds. But the losses also included some solid-citizen, ACC-caliber talents recruited by Bzdelik.
The result is one of the youngest rosters in ACC history. Bzdelik has 10 recruited players on his can-play list, one senior, one junior, one sophomore and seven freshmen; another sophomore is redshirting with a knee injury.
The two upperclassmen are pretty good. Senior guard C.J. Harris and junior forward Travis McKie have combined for 29 points per game this season. No other Deacon comes close to double-figures.
Wake Forest bridged 2012 and 2013 with a three-game winning streak, which ran their record to 7-5. A 66-59 win over Xavier might be their best win since Bzdelik arrived.
Saturday, they took their winning streak to Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of the top-ranked Duke Blue Devils.
The result was a predictable 80-62 loss. But Wake kept the deficit in the teens much of the final 10 minutes. It was never a winnable game for the Deacons but it wasn’t an absolute blow-out either.
Bzdelik said after the game that his team would learn and get better. “We played hard. We need to play better. We let it get away from us in the first half, too many turnovers, poor communication. It’s not an excuse. We have seven freshmen and one senior and only one junior. It is a great benchmark for our guys to understand what a number one ranked team does.”
Is dramatic improvement realistic? Harris and McKie scored 41 of Wake’s 62 points against Duke. Freshman Devin Thomas grabbed 12 rebounds but went scoreless. Freshman post Tyler Cavanaugh fouled out in 12 minutes, with two points and no rebounds. Freshmen point guards Codi Miller-McIntyre and Madison Jones combined for one assist, against three turnovers.
It’s easy to spin this as a deficit of experience rather than a deficit of talent. But none of these freshmen were must-get recruits in high school. Miller-McIntyre was the consensus #75 recruit, forward Arnaud Adala Moto # 90. No one else was in the top 100.
This is about the time when someone references Mike Krzyzewski, whose second and third Duke teams went 21-34. But expecting your embattled third-year coach to morph into Krzyzewski is a little like expecting your seven-year-old cello student to morph into Yo-Yo Ma.
Bzdelik and Wake might take more realistic solace in fellow third-year ACC coach Steve Donahue, at Boston College. Donahue went through the whole roster-full-of-freshmen thing last year; five of his top six scorers were freshmen. He doesn’t have a single recruited upperclassman on his 8-6 team.
But he does have some battle-tested sophomores, including power forward Ryan Anderson, the best ACC-player-you’ve-never-heard of. They also have better freshmen than Wake, especially unheralded Canadian guard Olivier Hanlan. And Anderson wasn’t a top-100 recruit the year before and he’s averaging 16 and 10. So, talent evaluation does matter and the Mickie D voters aren’t always prescient.
BC has wins over an SEC team (Auburn), a Big East team (Providence) and a Big 10 team (Penn State).
They also have a loss to Bryant, so we’re not talking the ’27 Yankees here. But it looks like Donahue’s team has come out of the other end of the tunnel intact. Trend lines going up.
Wake’s next four games are at home against Virginia and Boston College, then on the road against Clemson and Virginia Tech. A chance to build some momentum? Or dig a hole?
Portions of the Wake fan base are getting restless with Bzdelik, especially with second-year coaches Mark Gottfried and Mark Turgeon riding high at NC State and Maryland respectively. “Buzz Out” T-shirts are showing up on campus.
But Bzdelik appears to have the support of veteran AD Ron Wellman and almost certainly will be given a fourth season to see if he’s got a Ryan Anderson or two on his roster.
Bzdelik did get a commitment last week from top-20 guard Shelton Mitchell. But make no mistake. You can’t bring in seven players in one class without getting some winners. Bzdelik’s future at Wake Forest rests on the development of this freshman class.
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