This year is a make-or-break season for head coach Jeff Bzdelik and the Wake Forest basketball program. Bzdelik has posted two consecutive embarrassing seasons with the Demon Deacons by going 8-24 in 2010-2011 and 13-18 in 2011-2012. Temper is high and patience is low in Winston-Salem. Fans are accustomed to cheering on a team that contends for ACC Championships, not the ACC cellar.
There remains guarded optimism amongst the Wake Forest faithful for this season. Four players return from last season, including the dynamic duo of senior C.J. Harris and junior Travis McKie. They were the team’s two leading scorers last season and were both All-ACC performers. Sharpshooter Chase Fischer and savvy big man Daniel Green—both sophomores—provide much-needed depth and continuity.
In addition, the Demon Deacons add the 23rd ranked recruiting class with seven incoming freshman, according to ESPN.com. The acclaimed “Sensational Seven” contains contributors from top to bottom.
The Demon Deacons boast two Top 150 prospects in point guard Codi Miller-McIntyre and forward Arnaud Moto. Miller-McIntyre displays incredible ball-handling abilities and makes his teammates better with his great vision, and he will be a huge boost for the Deacs who have struggled from the strong point guard position in recent years. Moto possesses tremendous athleticism and will impact the game on both sides of the ball, so do not be surprised to see him develop into a human highlight reel.
Wingman Aaron Rountree, power forwards Devin Thomas and Tyler Cavanaugh, seven-footer Andre “The Giant” Washington, and point guard Madison Jones all should develop into solid contributors off the bench.
With no further ado, here are seven bold predictions about the Demon Deacons this season. Should the team attain some of these challenging goals, expect Wake Forest to surprise some folks in the ACC.
An All-ACC Third Team nominee last season, senior shooting guard C.J. Harris possesses all the tools to make the jump to First Team this season.
The heart and soul of the Demon Deacons, Harris developed into a dynamic playmaker that warrants tight defense, with and without the ball. He creates his own shots off the dribble and is a tremendous shooter running off of screens.
He remains one of the premiere sharpshooters in the ACC, making a remarkable 42.2 percent from behind the arc.
He finished fourth in the ACC in scoring at 16.7 PPG and is the conference's highest returning scorer.
These prolific numbers should improve with a more polished Harris returning to his natural position as a shooting guard. Although he performed admirably playing point guard, he will have more opportunities to attack the basket from the wings and allow the Deacs to better stretch the floor.
And don't forget, zero players return from last year's All-ACC First Team and only three players return from the Second Team.
Last year, Travis McKie improved on all cylinders, especially his jump shot.The powerful, brute forward scored 16.1 PPG last season—good for sixth in the ACC—up from 13 PPG in 2010-2011. His three point percentage augmented from 30.4 percent as a freshman to 37.9 percent.
Yet, his field goal percentage dropped from 49.7 percent to 47.8 percent.
Much of this can be attributed to McKie being forced to take well-defended jump shots. As the team focal point on offense—along with C.J. Harris—opposing defenses zoned in on him and prevented him from getting clean looks at the basket.
McKie is at his best when he uses his strength and craftiness around the basket. The Deacs should play him more in the interior and utilize his prowess in the post. Although undersized as a power forward at 6'7", he makes up for it with his strength and he also uses his agility and vision pose huge mismatches for bigger defenders.
This year, for the first time in his career, McKie will have a true, pass-first point guard in Codi Miller-McIntyre to distribute the ball.
Expect McKie to receive many more good looks in the interior to boost his field goal percentage.
Also, he has worked arduously in the off-season to improve the range on his jump shot even more and can still stroke it from deep when necessary.
A Demon Deacon making All-ACC Freshman team is not as much of a foregone conclusion as some fans might believe.
The ACC freshman talent pool is better and deeper than its been in several years. Nine different teams have at least one incoming Top 100 recruit.
The most notable competition includes: NC State's shooting guard Rodney Purvis and small forward T.J. Warren, North Carolina's point guard Marcus Paige, power forward's Amile Jefferson of Duke and Robert Carter of Georgia Tech and Shaquille Cleare, Maryland's center.
With only four scholarship players returning, Wake Forest will have substantial minutes available for freshman.
Point guard Codi Miller-McIntyre will have the reins to the offense from day one. He is extremely elusive with great vision, speed and passing ability. He has the skill to facilitate a talented Demon Deacons offense, but he might endure a steep learning curve to ACC competition and could be prone to turnovers.
The freakishly-athletic small forward Arnaud Moto is expected to receive significant playing time, as well. He remains raw, but provides the Deacs with another offensive threat to attack the basket and crash the boards. He should develop into a lock-down defender.
Seven-foot center Andre "The Giant" Washington will battle Daniel Green for the starting center spot. He possesses soft hands and great touch around the basket. He played with Miller-McIntyre in high school at Hargrave Academy and they developed a great feel for each others' game.
Small forward Aaron Rountree will get many minutes off the bench. He does all the little things well, and he is lauded as the ultimate hustle player. His long arms impact passing lanes and enables him to rebound the ball with ease.
The imposing power forward Devin Thomas is a monster in the interior. He is a monster on the boards and blocks many shots. He will get time next year.
The blazing fast Madison Jones will back-up at point guard. Power forward Tyler Cavanaugh will add depth to the interior.
Expect Miller-McIntyre and Moto to be the Demon Deacons main contenders to make the All-ACC Freshman Team, in that order, but face difficult competition.
After going 4-12 in ACC play last season, six conference wins this year would be major improvement.
Last season, the Demon Deacons defeated the other three worst teams in the ACC—Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Boston College twice. But the ACC is not as top-heavy this season, with each of these teams gaining valuable experience and depth, Wake Forest included.
The youthful and talented Deacs should have success against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Boston College. They also should challenge Miami, Clemson, Maryland and Virginia, who lost significant contributors due to graduation and the NBA Draft.
And maybe, just maybe, they can sneak by a top contender like North Carolina, Duke, N.C. State or Florida State. I know Winston-Salem is waiting for this team to compete with its in-state rivals.
In a very strong ACC, six wins will be difficult to say the least, but if Wake Forest maximizes their abilities, build cohesively as a team, and pulls out close games then it is very attainable.
But most importantly, the seven Demon Deacons' freshman need to grow and become acclimated to collegiate basketball very quickly.
Jeff Bzdelik has done very little to quiet his large group of critics in Winston-Salem in his first two seasons, as his record is 21-42.
His team has had more transfers and dismissals (eight) than conference wins (five).
His marquee win to date? A 58-55 victory at home against Virginia Tech, who finished ninth in the conference.
Wake Forest has not beaten a ranked opponent since February 13, 2010 against Georgia Tech, when Dino Gaudio was at the helm.
This could be the year, though, that good ol' Wake Forest surreptitiously defeats a ranked opponent. This team battles every possession and never gives up. If superior teams do not mentally and physically prepare, they can be upset.
Don't forget last season, when No. 3 ranked Duke led 65-42 with 10 minutes remaining and let up ever so slightly. The Demon Deacons stormed back with a 19-2 run to embolden the crowd on senior night. They brought the game within two possessions in the final minute.
This team possesses the shear talent and determination to creep up on a top opponent and win and give Bzdelik his first major victory with the program.
Once upon a time, the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum was nightmare for opponents and revered by fans for its home court advantage. "Tie-Dye Nation," the team fan club, was known as one of the most hellacious, ruthless crowds in the country.
The Joel magnifies the cacophony because it seats 14,000 right on top of the floor.
Only two seasons ago, the sea of Gold and Black stood strong, but as the program collapsed into an abyss, as did the attendance.
Last season, less than 100 students showed up in their 85-56 clobbering of lowly Boston College. Against Duke and North Carolina, blue remained more prevalent in the stands than Gold and Black.
"If you build it, they will come."
The students and local community are all eager to support the Demon Deacons if the team prove themselves.
With success on the court, the electrifying, hostile environment will return to the Joel.
Although the schedules have not been fully released yet, Wake Forest does not have many difficult non-conference opponents lined up. Their schedule consists of a beatable Connecticut team that lost all of its talent and several mid-major programs.
Last season, they finished 13-18, believe it or not, only three wins away from an NIT berth. Early in the season, they had some forgettable losses against Dayton, Arizona State, Richmond and Wofford.
I expect an invigorated Demon Deacons team with a lot to prove. If they coast through December as they should, they will be in good position heading into an unforgiving conference schedule.
By the time conference play rolls around, I imagine the freshman will coalesce with the upperclassmen and display their abilities. The team must take care of business against the lesser teams in the ACC. The worst teams in the ACC—Boston College and Georgia Tech—both improved mightily from last season.
The Demon Deacons also cannot get discouraged after tough games, especially against the likes of rivals Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State. The three in-state foes all sport superior teams this year that can contend on a national scale.
C.J. Harris and Travis McKie surrounded by a strong core can lead a team to a winning record. This team will spar with bumps, bruises and face bouts with inexperience, but if they can overcome the adversity, this team has what it takes to compete in the postseason.