Gold Rush Feature: A Conversation With Jeff Bzdelik

April 18, 2011

This article was originally published in the April 9 edition of Gold Rush.

By Jay Reddick

Sometimes, to move forward, you have to take a few steps back. This basketball season at Wake Forest provided chances for the team to rebuild, grow and learn the system of first-year coach Jeff Bzdelik. Departures and injuries meant the Deacons never had their expected roster together at any one time, which forced youngsters to play extended minutes or play out of position -- challenges that will hopefully help the team in the coming years. Gold Rush's Jay Reddick talked to Bzdelik a couple of weeks after the 8-24 campaign ended.

Gold Rush: What do you take away from the season?
Bzdelik: The main focus of this last season was to establish a culture that will allow our teams in the future to play to their fullest potential. And we made tremendous strides in that area.

Gold Rush: Obviously it's the first step in a long journey.
Bzdelik: Correct. We need to just continue to show improvement on a daily basis. This year, obviously, the record was not reflective of how much we improved in creating the culture.

Gold Rush: Why do you think the improvements didn't translate from practice to the court on gameday?
Bzdelik: The discipline that had been missing off the court has been re-established. Going to class; being respectful of tutors; respectful of students, staff and administration. That's a huge priority because the discipline off the court goes hand in hand with the discipline on the court.

Gold Rush: Coming into the season, you could look at the roster and know the team is inexperienced. You knew it could be an uphill battle in front of you. In terms of on-court developments, what did you expect to see?
Bzdelik: To gain a knowledge of playing winning basketball. When you have such extreme inexperience and players that are so young -- young players don't understand what it takes to win at this level, and there was really no upperclassman that was like a big brother. Gary Clark was a shining star in this season in terms of his effort and his passion, but the reality was that he played more minutes this year than he had in his first three years combined. Ty Walker, same way. Nikita (Mescheriakov) had sat out for over a year.



And so when you look at it, when you have three or four freshmen on the court at one time, two things happened: They didn't understand -- now they do -- but they didn't understand as the season went on what it takes to win. Drawing charges, taking charges, all five guys defending at one time, hitting open men, learning to play without the basketball in their hands -- that was all new to them. We did get better as the year went on, but unfortunately, so did the talent of our opposition.

And you combine that with the physical-ness of the game, not being strong enough and experienced enough to finish around the rim. We shot, I think, 42 percent on layups. Most teams shoot around 75 percent; they're able to finish. Next year at that time, Carson (Desrosiers) will finish those shots. Travis (McKie) will finish those shots. Tony Chennault will make better decisions at the rim. J.T. Terrell will make better decisions. That, coupled with getting stronger, will help us.

Gold Rush: For any team, bringing in freshmen, there's always that learning curve. But even for upperclassmen, they're having to learn your new system. That had to play a lot into it.
Bzdelik: Yeah. I really didn't establish offensively what I truly want to do because of certain limitations that existed on our basketball team. Finding what could work was an adjustment for me as well. What we started to do and had plans for went by the side when we lost Tony Woods. You lose your center, and you lose your point guard on top of it, we were always trying to adjust on the fly here, and it took us a while to get into a rhythm.

Gold Rush: There was a point a few games into the season where you could tell there were some adjustments to the offense, with less traditional half-court basketball and more motion and cutting, with more guys handling the ball than just the point guard.
Bzdelik: That's where I'd like to get to. We had moments. At one time we had 4-5 guys averaging double digits in scoring. We started to understand the value of sharing the basketball, but we still have ball-stoppers as opposed to ball-movers, and we have to develop that mentality of being ball-movers.

Gold Rush: Is that scoring balance something you strive for in your offense?
Bzdelik: I like balance. Extremes are dangerous. The game is more fun when the ball is shared. We have to remember that basketball is still a team game.

Gold Rush: Opening the regular season in November, you lost 3 of your first 5 games. How hard was it to stay positive, to stay focused on the ultimate goal, for you and for the guys?
Bzdelik: The beauty of athletics is, it teaches you about life. You always don't get what you want. We all go through life having to clear hurdles. You get knocked down, you have to get back up, dust your seat off and keep moving forward. You have to understand that successful people are only momentarily discouraged. Stay positive and move forward. That's the way life is.

Gold Rush: You said earlier that you had some moments through the year. Iowa had to be one of those nights that everything came together on the court the way you hoped.
Bzdelik: It was a fun game, and a feel-good, great win for us. We had some moments, but not enough of those. We had some moments within games, we came out of the box from the opening tip in many games. We were prepared and motivated in so many ways at the start of games, but as the game went on, when we hit adversity, we showed our immaturity. Coupled with that, when we had the chances to finish, we weren't physically strong enough. Those two things deflated us, took away our energy, and the games slowly, methodically, would slip away from us.

There were so many other examples: NC State on the road, second half, we're down 4; down 8 at Carolina with the ball after we stole it with 9 minutes to go. Things like that -- we're actually there, a couple of possessions away. Even Duke was a four-point game in the second half. But the physical and emotional maturity of our team just -- it would go.

Gold Rush: Did you see that in practice, too?
Bzdelik: Yeah. We really started having a lot of one-hour practices because we were wearing down physically and mentally. The Wake Forest alums who are reading this have to think back to when they were freshmen, the academic challenges and social challenges that they encountered. You can't forget that. Now couple that with playing ACC basketball. Understand that 50 percent of our team were freshmen, two were sophomores, Ty was like a freshman, and Gary was like a sophomore. I'm not making excuses, I'm just trying to explain why it was what it was.

It was a year that made everyone humble and hungry. That's the theme right now, humble and hungry, and the guys are working really hard.

Gold Rush: With the losses and the criticism, how have you dealt with it personally?
Bzdelik: The criticism, people need to know, whatever they say about me doesn't affect my day one bit. Whatever people are saying about Jeff Bzdelik, I say to myself worse than whatever anybody could say. When they say it, it doesn't affect me at all. And I don't let the words of others at all affect or challenge my confidence and belief in what I can do. What did I learn from this year? Patience. Patience to help young men grow up. Anyone who is a parent knows that maturity is going to take its own time.

Gold Rush: As far as individual development, from point A to point B, who made big strides?
Bzdelik: There are so many of them. Carson's going to be a very good player in this league. He played huge minutes, was one of the ACC leaders in shot-blocking, had some games he rebounded well and scored the ball well. Travis got invited to the under-19 national team tryouts, was recognized as one of the top freshmen in the ACC and put up some great numbers. He obviously has a very bright future. J.T. has shown he can score the ball, but he has to learn more about shot selection, defense, playing to win. Tony Chennault got valuable experience in the games he did play, and that will bode well for his future. C.J. Harris gained valuable experience to expand his game playing point guard. Everybody learned and got better, and now we have to continue doing that individually and collectively.

Gold Rush: Offseason programs will obviously be crucial for these guys. What do you have them working on? What will you be working on with them during individual workouts?
Bzdelik: Number one, they need obviously to get stronger, become more explosive, become a better athlete. Second of all, they need to develop their passing, dribbling and shooting skills, and their decision-making skills. Third of all, we're going to do some things from a team-bonding standpoint with a military aspect that will grow this team together and challenge this team to be mentally and physically tougher, discipline experiences that will challenge this team to grow through adversity.

Gold Rush: Gary Clark was your one senior in the rotation. Talk about what he's meant this year.
Bzdelik: Gary never wavered in his enthusiasm and passion toward Wake Forest University on and off the court. His love for Wake Forest was unconditional. He did his best to play to his fullest potential.

Gold Rush: What about the fall signees? What will they bring to the table?
Bzdelik: Chase Fischer, a shooting guard, was just named Player of the Year in the state of West Virginia. He's 6-3, an outstanding shooter, heady player, scrappy player. Has deep range with a quick release.

Daniel Green is 6-9, with a 7-2 wingspan. Extremely young, great upside, finished his high school career with four games averaging about 18 points, 15 rebounds and six or seven blocks. He has a black belt and he's the son of a former Marine. Obviously he will bring some toughness, which is a good thing.

Gold Rush: It's still early, but what does that mean for the makeup of next year?
Bzdelik: We're not done recruiting, we're still filling some more holes. But we look next year to have Tony Chennault and hopefully another point guard, then we've got J.T. and C.J. and Chase (at the wings); (big men) Travis, Carson, Nikita, Daniel Green, Ty Walker, and we hope to get another player of some size.

Gold Rush: What is the status of Melvin Tabb?
Bzdelik: Melvin's status is simply on him. We will see how he responds to what is required of him throughout the spring.

Gold Rush: It's a long way to the first day of practice.
Bzdelik: I really wish it was here.

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