WINSTON-SALEM — When Jeff Bzdelik looked back at his first two seasons as Wake Forests basketball coach, two things quickly established themselves as goals for the 2012-2013 season.
Improving on last seasons 13-18 record topped Bzdeliks 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. Its definitely been difficult, because I came in with five other guys. Its kinda tough seeing all your brothers playing somewhere else, but its a business. They all made certain choices for their careers, and I respect it.
Thats one reason the term freshman wont be deemed an excuse for losing.
Weve got to win; thats why they cant think of themselves as freshmen, Bzdelik said. Otherwise, what happens is, Well, Im only a freshman. Its OK, Ill be better next year. But no, that cant resonate in their mind.
No, I need them to perform now. I dont want that to be an excuse or a crutch for our young guys.
But winning is Bzdeliks short-term goal.
In the long run, he believes winning back Wake Forests 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. Theyd walk in with their earphones on, theyd take them off when class started, and when class was done theyd put them back on and walk out. They never said hello, never acknowledged us. Why would we come watch games?
Thats what Ive been telling the players you want them to come to your games? Get involved in their lives too. Theyve 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 dont 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, Id probably just hang around with my teammates. But here, this isnt 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 teams 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 teams 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 havent done anything sensational yet.
Weve got to prove that we are the sensational seven first before we call ourselves that, Thomas said. We havent even played a game yet, so we humble ourselves as a group because we cant call ourselves that until we do something sensational.
Said McIntyre: (The veteran players are) telling us nobodys going to take it easy on us just because were freshmen. Each game were going to come out and play with a chip on our shoulder, go as hard as we can.
Thats why I came here, and thats 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 Forests program doesnt return to the level of its recent past, when the Deacons were 20-game winners and making regular trips to the NCAA tournament.
Im 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 Forests coach. Weve got to win. Weve got to continue to keep growing. We made good strides from year one to year two, and weve got to make good strides from year two to year three. Weve got to keep that going.
Thats where the freshmen-who-arent-freshmen-anymore will make their biggest impact, even when they have their rough patches on the court.
We definitely know that with seven freshmen, theyre going to struggle from time to time, McKie said. Thats normal, because theyre going to have their ups and downs. C.J. and I know that were going to have to carry the load sometimes because were 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 wont 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 wont 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 ACCs 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 Ws this year.