WINSTON-SALEM — If Jeff Bzdelik is feeling any pressure heading into the 2013-2014 college basketball season, he certainly isn’t showing it.
However, Bzdelik is the first to admit that this season will be vital not just for the Deacons’ players but also for his future as the team’s head coach.
“It’s a results-driven business,” said Bzdelik, who is 34-60 after three seasons. “We need to win – we need to win. That’s what I get paid to do, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Yet there’s a confidence in Bzdelik’s tone that has been lacking in past years – a confidence borne of having a solid group of experienced players returning for the first time since he became Wake Forest’s coach in 2010.
The Deacons return four starters and eight scholarship lettermen from last year’s team, which upset two nationally ranked teams – No. 18 N.C. State and No. 2 Miami, ending the Hurricanes’ undefeated season. The Deacons also lost to Georgia Tech, Clemson and Virginia Tech, which finished behind Wake Forest in the ACC standings.
While the Deacons lost all-ACC shooting guard C.J. Harris to graduation, they return senior forward Travis McKie, the ACC’s leading returning career scorer (1,334 points) and rebounder (680 boards).
Then there are the sophomores – guards Codi Miller-McIntyre and Madison Jones, forwards Devin Thomas, Arnaud William Adala Moto, Aaron Roundtree III and Tyler Cavanaugh; and 7-foot center Andre Washington.
Those seven played last year. Miller-McIntyre, Thomas and Adala Moto all started a majority of the Deacons’ games.
Add in shooting guard Coron Williams, a grad student who spent the past three seasons at Robert Morris; and two freshman – guard Miles Overton and forward Greg McClinton (who underwent knee surgery last winter, and will be ready to play in mid-December) – and Wake Forest could go as many as 11 deep in its rotation.
But a lot of the Deacons’ success or failure this season will ride on the play of the sophomores.
“They’re older, they’re wiser, they’re stronger and they’re more mature,” Bzdelik said. “When you’re coming out of high school, you really have no understanding of what it takes to play at this level. So to go through the year that they did – having some great success along with some tough losses – they gained a valuable understanding of what’s expected of them and what it takes to win at this level.
“They’ve improved their bodies, they’ve improved their minds, they’ve improved their skills. In a collective way, they’re excited about their future. They’ve worked really hard to make sure they have a great future.”
Small margin between Ws and Ls
Still, it all comes down to wins and losses.
That’s been a problem for Wake Forest since Bzdelik was hired to replace Dino Gaudio, who coached the Deacons to back-to-back 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament berths – and, for one week, being ranked No. 1 in the polls – before being fired following the 2009-2010 season.
In three seasons, Wake Forest has yet to win 14 games under Bzdelik and it’s a combined 11-39 in the ACC . The Deacons have finished 13-18 the past two seasons, and have come in ninth in the league standings.
But progress can be measured in many ways. One: not all of last season’s losses were blowouts – Wake Forest lost seven games (four in the ACC) by six or fewer points.
While a lot of that can be attributed to the Deacons’ relative youth – at least three freshmen started in all but three games – that one year of experience opened the eyes of the now-sophomores, according to Bzdelik.
“We lost two games by one (point), a game by two (points), a game by three (points), a game by four (points), a game by five (points) and a game by six (points),” Bzdelik said. “That’s seven games by two possessions or less.
“When we got together in July, the first thing we did was run through each of those games – how many loose balls the other team got compared to us, how many charges the other team took compared to us, things like that – so they understand the value of every possession.
“If we had gotten four more possessions in our favor in four of those seven losses, we’d have 17 wins and probably would have been in the NIT with a very young team. They now understand that.”
Quieting the rumbling
The lack of success has led to intensified the heat on Bzdelik to revitalize the program. Now. Calls for his ouster have come from occasional newspaper and radio ads to boosters.
Bzdelik has tried to ignore all of that, but he did admit that the past three seasons’ struggles were a shock. He had back-to-back 20-win seasons and postseason berths at Air Force and nine playoff appearances in 15 seasons as an assistant and head coach in the NBA.
“When you have success, you just kind of keep going, and everything is just cool,” Bzdelik said. “But when you get knocked down, you get up, you examine yourself and you say ‘OK, you know what? It’s my team. You’ve got to find a way.’”
So as Wake Forest’s players spent the summer at elite-level camps or on campus working on their games, Bzdelik spent his summer working on himself.
He spent time with current and former college and NBA coaches, and even sat in on lectures about dealing with today’s generation. In mid-October, Bzdelik and the rest of the Deacons’ coaching staff spent several days with the San Antonio Spurs’ coaches.
“Let’s put it this way – I’m relaxed, I’m positive, I feel great,” Bzdelik said. “I’m really looking forward to this season. … That’s just been the way I’ve been for several months. It’s just how I feel, and I’ve kind of grown into that.”
Bzdelik also knows things will be tougher on Wake Forest. Former Big East programs Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame are in the ACC now, and defending NCAA champion Louisville will join next season.
“The league is extremely challenging – probably the best basketball league in the history of basketball at this point and time,” Bzdelik said. “But we’re still in the league, and we still have to find a way to keep climbing.”
Kiser: 704-895-3662; Twitter: @Bkiser_CLTObs.