WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—Jeff Bzdelik is hoping for a better second year at Wake Forest. His first certainly couldn't have gone much worse.
The Demon Deacons' school-record 24-loss season included a puzzling string of early defeats to mid-major programs before they lost an ACC-record 15 league games. Then came an even more difficult offseason in which three players left the program for various reasons and a fourth was suspended for the first part of this season.
The way Bzdelik sees it, the players who stuck around have grown up -- and that gives them a better chance at success this season.
"We've gone from immaturity to maturity, and that is huge," Bzdelik said. "Those young players who played huge minutes last year gained experience. They played a lot of minutes, and they have an understanding of what it takes to win and the physicality and the speed and the quickness of the game.
"The third thing is, they've changed their bodies. They've gotten stronger," he added. "Physically they are better. Mentally they are better. Collectively they are better, as a team. It's fun to be around them. They want to learn. I don't have to motivate guys to give an effort. I can now teach, and that's a great feeling for a coach."
Since that brutal 8-24 season ended, forward Ari Stewart transferred to Southern Cal, forward Melvin Tabb was kicked off the team and guard J.T. Terrell was charged with driving while impaired and withdrew from school to deal with what his lawyer called "a serious medical condition." Additionally, center Ty Walker was suspended until the end of the fall semester for violating the school's code of conduct.
"The guys that are left here are really starting to bind together," guard C.J. Harris said. "They made the transition easier because they've made us that much more of a team. Everybody's just trying to stick together."
The Demon Deacons are trying to keep the focus on the players who have stuck around, and the most important of those is forward Travis McKie, the lone bright spot from last year. McKie is looking to build on his breakout first season in which he averaged a team-best 13 points and was named to the league's all-freshman team.
"I have a lot more work to do," McKie said, adding that he needs to improve "my ball-handling and more consistent shooting. My overall quickness is the biggest thing. I'm just going to keep working and keep doing what I need to do."
Point guard Tony Chennault wasn't much of a factor as a freshman after he broke his foot in the opener, missed 17 games -- leaving the Demon Deacons rudderless at the point -- and once he healed, he never really regained his form. But after packing on 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason, he says he's in the best shape of his life.
"I'm just trying to be a leader. That's something we didn't have last year," Chennault said. "We were really inconsistent at that. I'm just trying to set the tone every day in practice for us to get better."
In something of a surprise, the Demon Deacons weren't the preseason pick to finish last in the ACC -- instead, they were picked 11th. They'll need to show an awful lot of improvement to challenge in a league that features national title contenders North Carolina and Duke.
"We are going to maximize the talent that we have," Bzdelik said. "We are going to be a fun team to watch because they will compete and they will work extremely hard. And they care -- they care about Wake Forest. They want to be a part of the Wake Forest team. ...
"We have a team that works hard, a team that is together, a team that is hungry and humble and a team that is feeling the pain from last year, as I am. We want to do all that we can to erase that pain."