Jeff Bzdelik insists he’s building a “rock-solid” foundation for the Wake Forest basketball program. Wake fans are hoping the coach is building something, an unclear proposition as his tenure nears the midpoint of its third year.
“We’re in a really good place right now, we really are,” Bzdelik said after a plodding home victory over Xavier.
That’s a matter of some debate. Statistically, Wake ranks in the top half of the ACC only in steals and 3-point percentage (.377). From rebounding to passing, scoring to defense to ball handling the Demon Deacons rank last or next to last in the league.
In many categories the team is performing below last year’s level, when Wake finished 13-18 and in a four-way tie at the bottom of the standings.
Following a respectable but futile effort at Duke in their ACC opener, the Deacs were 7-6, the league’s worst winning percentage.
Their 4-5 start to the season was the worst at the school since 1988. They lost to the three power conference teams they faced prior to entering ACC competition: Connecticut, Nebraska, and Seton Hall.
This from a program that won at least 20 games and reached the NCAAs in two of every three seasons in the 18 years prior to Bzdelik’s arrival.
Bzdelik understandably points to his team’s youth – three freshmen started at Duke and four played at least 20 minutes – as a major factor in its struggles in 2013. “One of the youngest teams in the country, bar none,” he said of his team after it outlasted Xavier. “They’re growing up every day.”
Certainly there’s talent in the freshman class, starting with post man Devin Thomas and point guards Codi Miller-McIntyre and Madison Jones.
Thomas, whose sister, Alyssa Thomas, was the 2012 ACC women’s player of the year at Maryland, had a combined 26 rebounds against Xavier and Duke. He dismisses the physical challenge of college ball as nothing special. “I like playing physical,” he says. “That’s how I always play.”
For all that, there isn’t a breakout talent apparent among the freshmen. The best players on the roster remain upperclassmen C.J. Harris and Travis McKie, holdovers from Dino Gaudio’s regime who were the ACC’s top returning scorers.
The lack of success on the court has been exacerbated, fairly or not, by Bzdelik’s personality. Where his immediate predecessors – Gaudio, Skip Prosser, and Dave Odom – were engaging extroverts, Bzdelik, 60, is cut from the same cloth as Herb Sendek, the former N.C. State head coach (1997-2006) who didn’t connect with fans.
Consequently Bzdelik’s command of the game does not translate well into command of what the school dubs “Tie Dye Nation.” It requires a certain political touch to maintain the allegiance of boosters and to charm the average fan. Shutting down direct questions from callers to his radio show is not a sign of a common touch.
McKie, grinning and hugging the winner’s trophy after the third Skip Prosser Classic matching Xavier and Wake – both schools where the late Prosser served as head coach -- was asked why Bzdelik hasn’t connected with fans.
“I guess he’s not a people person, so to speak,” said the junior. “He’s kind of a shy guy, to say the least. He doesn’t appeal more to the average fan. It’s where he came from …
“There’s definitely a transition part, but everybody loves results. You can be a people-pleaser all you want, but everybody loves results. You’ve got to continue to win. If we continue to win, fans are going to come. That’s all there is to it.”
And if you don’t win, the fans don’t come.
In 2010, Gaudio’s last season as coach at Winston-Salem, Wake won 20 times and averaged 11,833 spectators per game at Joel Coliseum. That was 82 percent of capacity. By last year the average was down to 8,675, a 22 percent drop in two seasons.
This year attendance has dropped again. The Deacs drew an average of 7,527 fans for their first seven games through Jan. 2 in an arena that seats 14,407.
Wake Forest AD Ron Wellman, in a mid-December interview with Dan Collins of the Winston-Salem Journal, pronounced the team’s “fight and enthusiasm” as “very encouraging to me.” He also downplayed the decline in attendance, citing league-wide trends.
“What I’m looking for is progress and improvement,” said Wellman, who hired the largely unknown Bzdelik and has defended him at every turn. “I’ve seen that. I see what Jeff is doing in response to what he was asked to do. And he’s doing that. He was asked to build a culture that would be sustainable through a season and over many, many years. That means bringing the right people in, having the right approach with those individuals, improving throughout the year and year after year.”
Wellman’s view that slow and steady wins the race served him well with Jim Grobe and the Wake football program. But in basketball it’s contradicted by long-suffering N.C. State, prospering some 90 miles away in Raleigh.
The Wolfpack returned to prosperity almost instantaneously under Mark Gottfried, a coach who can recruit top-notch players, knows how to motivate and mold talent, and is able and willing to engage the public.
Patiently building the right culture can prepare a program for prosperity. But ultimately it’s the blend of guiding intelligence and personality on the sidelines that animates and drives success.
And there’s still no convincing evidence Bzdelik can win with sufficient frequency to rekindle fan enthusiasm, let alone lead Tie Dye Nation back to a perch at the forefront of college basketball.