Harris, McKie and 'Baby Deacs' hope to heal Deacons

CorrespondentNovember 2, 2012 

SPORTS BKC-WAKE-NCSTATE 2 RA

Wake Forest's C.J. Harris (11), right, tries to drive past North Carolina State's Ryan Harrow (12) during the first half at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, Saturday, January 8, 2011. N.C. State defeated Wake Forest, 90-69.

GREG MINTEL

— When Jeff Bzdelik looked back at his first two seasons as Wake Forest’s basketball coach, two things quickly established themselves as goals for the 2012-2013 season.

Improving on last season’s 13-18 record topped Bzdelik’s list.

To accomplish that, the Deacons – who open their season at home Nov. 9 against Radford – will lean heavily on a seven-player freshman class to complement returning starters C.J. Harris and Travis McKie.

The freshmen – guards Codi Miller-McIntyre and Madison Jones, forwards Devin Thomas, Aaron Roundtree III, Tyler Cavanaugh and Arnaud William Adala Moto; and center Andre Washington – give much needed depth to a Wake Forest roster that has been decimated because of transfers.

Just look at the list of former Deacons who playing elsewhere: Ari Stewart and J.T. Terrell (both at Southern California), Tony Chennault (Villanova), Carson Derosiers (Providence), Melvin Tabb (Kent State) and Anthony Fields (Bradley).

“Some people on campus call us ‘the last of the Mohicans,’ ” McKie said, referring to himself and Harris. “It’s definitely been difficult, because I came in with five other guys. It’s kinda tough seeing all your brothers playing somewhere else, but it’s a business. They all made certain choices for their careers, and I respect it.”

That’s one reason the term “freshman” won’t be deemed an excuse for losing.

“We’ve got to win; that’s why they can’t think of themselves as freshmen,” Bzdelik said. “Otherwise, what happens is, ‘Well, I’m only a freshman. It’s OK, I’ll be better next year.’ But no, that can’t resonate in their mind.

“No, I need them to perform now. I don’t want that to be an excuse or a crutch for our young guys.”

But winning is Bzdelik’s short-term goal.

In the long run, he believes winning back Wake Forest’s student body might be more important for the Deacons’ future.

Winning the campus

Even as Wake Forest was establishing itself as a contender in the ACC and on the national stage – it was just three years ago that the Deacons were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll – its players were developing unflattering reputation among the student body.

“I talk to a lot of students," Bzdelik said. “A couple of them told me that they spent an entire year with a couple of my players in class. They’d walk in with their earphones on, they’d take them off when class started, and when class was done they’d put them back on and walk out. They never said hello, never acknowledged us. Why would we come watch games?

“That’s what I’ve been telling the players – you want them to come to your games? Get involved in their lives too. They’ve been doing a great job of that.”

The first step came when the freshmen reported for summer school in July – they were enrolled in a public speaking class and a second class that involved participation in community service projects.

“I know most people don’t like speaking in front of a class,” Jones said. “But I knew a class like public speaking would be good for all of us to get to know each other better.”

“At a bigger school, I’d probably just hang around with my teammates. But here, this isn’t a big school, so we try to be more of a family and hang out with others. We want to get them back to the arena.”

So far, the effort appears to be working – it was standing-room only during the Deacons’ Black and Gold Madness, the team’s fan day Oct. 13 at Reynolds Gymnasium on the Wake Forest campus.

“They turned people away,” Bzdelik said.

Sense of family

Those efforts over the summer have also led to the freshmen quickly developing a camaraderie – a “sense of family,” as Bzdelik put it -- with one another and with the team’s veterans.

Harris, McKie and sophomore backups Chase Fischer and Daniel Green are looked at as the big brothers of the group, giving their “little brothers” a ride to dinner or on shopping trips and even lending them the keys to their cars on occasion.

The freshmen have also picked up a nickname of sorts on campus: “The Sensational Seven,” although they prefer being called “Baby Deacs” for now.

The reason? They haven’t done anything sensational yet.

“We’ve got to prove that we are the sensational seven first before we call ourselves that,” Thomas said. “We haven’t even played a game yet, so we humble ourselves as a group because we can’t call ourselves that until we do something sensational.”

Said McIntyre: “(The veteran players are) telling us nobody’s going to take it easy on us just because we’re freshmen. Each game we’re going to come out and play with a chip on our shoulder, go as hard as we can.

“That’s why I came here, and that’s why I love Wake Forest so much – we have so much to prove.”

The bottom line

Of course, all of the work in winning back the campus will be for naught if Wake Forest’s program doesn’t return to the level of its recent past, when the Deacons were 20-game winners and making regular trips to the NCAA tournament.

“I’m a big boy, and I understand the nature of this business,” said Bzdelik, who is 24-42 (5-27 ACC) in two seasons as Wake Forest’s coach. “We’ve got to win. We’ve got to continue to keep growing. We made good strides from year one to year two, and we’ve got to make good strides from year two to year three. We’ve got to keep that going.”

That’s where the freshmen-who-aren’t-freshmen-anymore will make their biggest impact, even when they have their rough patches on the court.

“We definitely know that with seven freshmen, they’re going to struggle from time to time,” McKie said. “That’s normal, because they’re going to have their ups and downs. C.J. and I know that we’re going to have to carry the load sometimes because we’re the most experienced.

“But that depth is going to be so much more help than people realize. Having a 10-, 11- or 12-man roster is so more helpful than having seven (players). We have more guys, more fresh legs and we can shuffle things up so defenses won’t know what we can do.

“C.J. and I are still going to continue to do what we do – put the ball in the basket – but we won’t be relied on so much as last year.”

If anything, the Deacons could be a sleeper in the league, considering the players returning this season – after all, Harris and McKie were two of the ACC’s leading scorers last year – and the potential of its freshmen class.

“Absolutely,” Harris said. “We have all the tools necessary to win games in the ACC. If the freshmen come in and contribute – and we really think they can – we can get a lot of ’W’s’ this year.”

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service