DeCock: Wake Forest's growing pains still sting

ldecock@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2013 

— Was it only four years ago? Less time than that has passed, actually, since sixth-ranked Wake Forest beat top-ranked Duke on Jan. 28, 2009. Looking back, that was clearly the high-water mark for the Demon Deacons. The wave broke there and has been receding ever since.

They flamed out of the NCAA tournament that spring and actually won a tournament game in 2010, but Dino Gaudio was fired days later, Jeff Bzdelik was hired and the Deacons have been rebuilding ever since – 2 1/2 long years of rebuilding, with no end in sight.

Wake Forest played top-ranked Duke again on Saturday, with the Deacons ranked pretty far from sixth. Duke won, of course. The Deacons had to battle back late just to get it to 80-62.

“We’re getting better every game, every practice,” senior guard C.J. Harris said. “We’ve made tremendous strides since the first few games. That’s shown in our competitiveness, how hard we compete out there. We never gave up.”

The week leading into this Duke game was a good one for Wake Forest: the Demon Deacons beat Xavier for their third straight win, and on Friday landed the No. 20 player in the class of 2014, according to ESPN’s Dave Telep, Waxhaw Cuthbertson point guard Shelton Mitchell.

Mitchell is a fan of Chris Paul, but the days when there was talent like Paul at Wake seem far away now. The simmering anger of the fan base has reached full boil this season, with “Buzz Out” T-shirts in protest. Wake fans aren’t unhappy a young team is taking its lumps. They’re unhappy that they’re watching it for the third year in a row with no end in sight.

“It is not an excuse. I am not making an excuse at all,” Bzdelik said. “We have seven freshmen and one senior and only one junior. It is a great benchmark for our guys to understand what a No. 1-ranked team does, and playing on the road, especially here in Cameron.”

Especially for someone like Devin Thomas: The freshman forward has an ACC body and a general idea of what he’s doing. He’s also a half-second behind as he adjusts to the pace of college basketball. Thomas had 12 rebounds, but no points and six turnovers.

“I learned a lot,” Thomas said. “I learned for the future that the ACC is a physical game and I need to play better defense. I’ll learn from it.”

Thomas looks like a player and probably will be a player, but he’s not a player yet. Nevertheless, Wake is demanding it from him. He isn’t equipped, at this point in his career, to deliver – although he’s ahead of some of his teammates.

These growing pains would be fine if this were the first year of the Bzdelik rebuilding campaign, but it’s hard to blame fans for chafing in Year 3, while the promising careers of the talented Harris and Travis McKie are being largely wasted.

At one point early in the second half, after one of his teammates left Ryan Kelly wide open for yet another 3-pointer, Harris threw up his hands. It was only Kelly’s fifth of the afternoon. The Blue Devils finished with 11, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski thought his team was open enough to hit about eight more.

“You can’t go in there and baby them saying everything’s OK,” Harris said. “It’s a combination of encouragement and letting them know what they did wrong.”

Harris has spent three years coming up with variations on that theme. Four years ago, Duke was No. 1 in the country. The Blue Devils still are. Wake Forest is where it was last year and the year before, running in place while falling further behind.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947

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