Wake Forest cautiously optimistic after win over NC State
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — You’ll have to forgive Wake Forest (12-5, 2-2 ACC) — their coaches, players, and even their fans — if they’re not all that excited about getting a win over in-state rival NC State (11-6, 1-3 ACC).
Don’t get me wrong — they’re excited. It was an exciting ending to an ACC game that was a fun, up-and-down affair in the first half and a foul-marred, rhythm-free game in the second. Wake sophomore point guard Codi Miller-McIntyre got to hit the game-winning shot, and he finished with a game-high 20 points.
"It takes a lot for me to get excited anyway," he said, when asked about his rather even-keeled postgame demeanor.
Considering where the program has come from in the last few years – back-to-back 13-18 seasons after head coach Jeff Bzdelik’s first team went 8-24 in 2011 — you’d think that any win would be a huge, huge accomplishment.
Not for this team, though. As Wake fans — and college basketball observers, for that matter — lamented the lack of progress around Bzdelik’s team in 2012, everyone knew that this was the year. Put up or shut up. Postseason (at least, some kind of postseason) or bust.
It’s a world away from where this team was the last time it won a game against NC State. And NC State is a world away from being that team, too.
Last year in late January, Wake Forest was 9-8 and feeling its season slip away slowly. The Deacs were impossibly young, but it was Jeff Bzdelik’s third year as head coach and they were just 9-8 on the season with no real marquee win in Bzdelik’s tenure.
They were facing a ranked NC State team that was 15-3 and just a few games removed from knocking off Duke at home. And they got that elusive marquee win over an NC State team whose proverbial wheels fell off after that, more or less.
But it was still a win over a ranked team, and it was still a sign of progress.
If NC State’s wheels fell off, though, Wake Forest’s wheels exploded and then caught fire.
The Deacs would get one more very impressive win — over a Miami team that eventually won the ACC regular-season and Tournament titles — but Wake ultimately finished the season after the NC State game on a 3-10 skid, losing four straight after the State win and three straight after the Miami win, ultimately unable to build anything substantive out of it.
So the happiness was there, but it was a cautious happiness, a guarded happiness.
Travis McKie, a senior who’s been around this program since Bzdelik’s first season, just wants this program to get back to the place it was even in 2010, where it was mentioned in the same breath as Duke and North Carolina (this was before NC State’s resurgence under Mark Gottfried).
He was as happy as anyone when Wake got the win over North Carolina back on January 5. But he was as discouraged as anyone when Wake Forest continued its futility on the road.
"It’s a great win. A great home win." McKie said. "But we’ve got to go back on the road Saturday. That’s the thing — we’ve got to get the monkey off our back and get a road win. We’ve got to come out and play with the same intensity that we did now on Saturday."
One of the primary statistics used against Bzdelik is his lack of road success, particularly in the ACC where Wake has exactly one road win in three full seasons (and is already 0-2 this year).
And the average margin of defeat has been an issue. Two ACC road losses by an average of 19 points already this season. An 0-9 road record in league play last year with an average margin of defeat of 14.4 points. A 1-7 ACC road record in 2012 with a 13.6-point average margin of defeat. The 2011 season was by far the worst, with eight league road losses coming by an average of 21.8 points.
But really, the margin no longer matters. Win on the road, somehow, some way, and make this game mean something. That’s the mindset of this Wake Forest team going forward.
"We protected home court. We did what we were supposed to do," McKie said. "We have a game Saturday on the road. We haven’t won on the road. We’re two different teams on the road and at home. We’ve just got to come out and play with the same intensity that we did tonight on Saturday (at Clemson)."
Miller-McIntyre said he’ll be more excited when — and, of course, if — Wake Forest can go to Clemson and get an ACC road win, giving the Deacs two ACC wins in a row for just the second time ever in the Bzdelik era.
"We won tonight. It was a big win. But we have to get a road win," Miller-McIntyre said. "That’s the only way it’s going to truly show how much of a team we are this year and how much growth we’re making if we get that road win. So that’s kind of where my focus is right now."
When Bzdelik — who is quite dry anyway — sat down at the podium after the game, his facial expression made it impossible to tell if his team had actually won the game.
He knows what he’s up against in terms of fan and media opinion, and he made that clear more than once.
When asked about switching to a zone defense, he said: "Well, our man wasn’t working. A lot of people don’t accuse me of being intelligent, but I did figure that one out." He followed that up with a wry smile.
And when asked to put the win in context, he wasn’t quite ready to do that.
"Yeah, I mean, it’s the bottom line — to win," Bzdelik said with a shrug, "so you write good things tomorrow."
Bzdelik’s basketball mind has never been in question, really. He’s as x-and-o savvy a coach as there is. His players haven’t always executed what he wants them to do, and whether that’s the fault of the system or the teaching methods has always been up for debate.
But clearly, a lot of his lessons are sinking in already, as was evidenced by Wake Forest’s final possession.
Now, there seems to be more of a mutual trust between players and coach. They knew what Bzdelik wanted them to do, and he put the ball in the hands of his point guard and asked him to make a decision.
"We practice our special situations often. They’ll tell you that. We practice it in a way that if teams switch, we know what to do," Bzdelik said. "And we do it in a way that we have various lineups out there in case someone gets hurt or someone’s fouled out. So everybody knew what to do — we just needed to do it, and we did it."
The players have something to prove, too.
They want people to remember the proud history of Wake Forest — one that you’re quickly reminded of if you glance up in the rafters at the Joel Coliseum and see the jerseys of Tim Duncan, Josh Howard, Chris Paul and Muggsy Bogues, you remember that oh, yes, Wake HAS had a proud basketball tradition in the not-too-distant past.
Randolph Childress, one of the best players in ACC history and a guard that played alongside Duncan, is now a Wake Forest assistant. Seeing him walk through the locker room and tease Miller-McIntyre about a "Euro step" on his game-winning basket is a reminder of that past, too.
The players take pride in that, and want the college basketball universe to remember.
"A lot of times, especially growing up, all you hear about in North Carolina basketball is NC State, Carolina and Duke, and myself and my teammates are tired of hearing it," Miller-McIntyre said. "There’s another team in North Carolina, and I think that’s the message we’re trying to send."