Jeff Bzdelik made his way through the handshake line, surrounded by a crowd, frenzied in court-storming celebration, that has been all too rare in his four years at Wake Forest. If this was his final home game at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, what a way to go out.
In this one moment, Wake Forest reached back and touched what once made this program great. What Wednesday’s crowd lacked in numbers it made up in intensity, roaring throughout a late 17-0 run that turned a Duke lead into a home sweep of the Big Four for Wake Forest, 82-72.
It should have been a moment of triumph for Bzdelik. And yet it’s impossible to shake the sense that it’s too little, too late. Afterward, he was asked, innocuously, “What does this mean to you?”
“It ain’t about me,” Bzdelik said. “Next question.”
It was unquestionably Travis McKie’s final home game at Wake Forest -- the Demon Deacons don’t have an NIT-worthy resume or any reason to pony up the cash to play in the CBI -- and the pregame ceremony was a tepid send-off for a player who has endured four years of bad basketball due to circumstances entirely beyond his control.
As seniors Coron Williams and McKie were honored 10 minutes before tipoff, there were only a few fans in the upper deck of the Joel, with entire sections empty. Even the lower bowl was no more than one-third full. The Wake Forest fans were outnumbered by Duke fans, some of whom clapped politely as McKie’s accomplishments were enumerated. Athletic director Ron Wellman, who hired Bzdelik, followed McKie and his family off the court, a grim look on his face.
Two hours later, McKie received a standing ovation as he was subbed out in the final seconds and the team was mobbed by the same fans who earlier ignored it and have been vocal in their disapproval of Bzdelik’s tenure, to the point of a newspaper and billboard advertising campaign demanding his ouster.
In their defense, Bzdelik has struggled with the task of rebuilding a program essentially from scratch, developing young players without the help of veteran leadership or the luxury of protecting them from the grind of ACC play. Maybe with an older, more experienced team, Bzdelik might have found success. His quirky sense of humor might have gone over better.
Alas, that’s not how it worked out. Despite the home wins this season over Duke and North Carolina and N.C. State, they have won only two road ACC games in Bzdelik’s tenure and the team appeared to give up entirely in the second half of a blowout loss in Chapel Hill on Feb. 22.
It may be a stretch to say the future is bright for Wake Forest, but it isn’t as grim as it appeared last year or the year before. The core of battle-tested sophomores offers hope, if it can produce performances like Wednesday’s more often, especially away from home.
By any metric, this season was by far the best of Bzdelik’s four at Wake Forest, with a chance to improve, however slightly, on last season’s 6-12 ACC record. Even with a win at Miami on Friday, the Demon Deacons will still be playing on Wednesday in Greensboro, the Day of Irrelevance for the bottom six teams of a 15-team ACC.
Bzdelik may or may not be around for it. As the students danced in the middle of the floor, the Wake Forest players and assistant coaches waded into the fray. Bzdelik, finished with the handshake line, followed Duke’s players down the visiting tunnel and exited the floor immediately, never once looking back.