New Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik passes first test since taking job
In a whirlwind 36 hours following his hiring, Bzdelik saved a stellar recruiting class
Bzdelik now has a base of talent that should make Wake powerful in 2-3 years
Bzdelik has run a Princeton offense in the past, but he plans to open it up at Wake
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- They left Wake Forest at 7 a.m. on April 16 with a modest goal: secure commitments from five elite recruits in 36 hours. Technically, new Demon Deacons coach Jeff Bzdelik, associate head coach Jeff Battle and assistant Rusty LaRue were looking for re-commitments; they'd be visiting the Class of 2010 prospects that had signed with the school with the intention of playing for former head coach Dino Gaudio, who was fired on April 7. Because he had a 61-31 record over three seasons and a top-15 recruiting class on the way, Gaudio's axing came as a late surprise -- the kind of surprise that often inspires prospects to ask for releases from their Letters of Intent. Thus there was immense pressure on Bzdelik, in just his third day on the job, to prevent his 2010-11 roster from falling apart.
The coaches made a triangular drive through North Carolina on the 16th. Their first stop, 90 miles southwest, was at the Charlotte home of four-star shooting guard J.T. Terrell; their second was at the Raleigh home of four-star power forward Melvin Tabb. Bzdelik, Battle and LaRue took to the air on the 17th, boarding a Wake Forest booster's private jet at 7 a.m. so they could first be whisked from Winston-Salem to Richmond, Va., the home of four-star small forward Travis McKie. They jetted to their fourth destination, the South Philadelphia high school of three-star point guard Tony Chenault, by 2 p.m., then reboarded and made it to the Windham, N.H., home of four-star center Carson Desrosiers by 7 p.m.
At each stop Bzdelik asked the question, "Why did you choose Wake Forest?" The answers were along the same lines -- the basketball tradition, the academics, the fan support, the staff -- and so the former coach of the Denver Nuggets, Air Force and most recently Colorado, told all five players, "The only thing that's changed is me, and I'm not going to change any of those things."
Bzdelik, Battle and LaRue got their five pledges. They were back in Winston-Salem by the end of the night. Battle, who has a reputation as one of the country's best recruiting assistants and laid the groundwork for much of the 2010 class while working under Gaudio, remembers the overwhelming feeling of relief they had on the plane home -- because, he said, "You start to think about what would've happened if they didn't say yes, this late in the game."
After star forward Al-Farouq Aminu opted to enter the NBA draft as a sophomore, Wake only had four scholarship players (and just one starter, sophomore two-guard C.J. Harris) returning from a team that lost to Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Georgetown transfer Nikita Meshcharakou would be eligible too, bringing the total to five. But who makes an ACC basketball team out of five returnees and scraps gathered in the late recruiting period? Although Bzdelik inherited next-to-nothing when he took over a seven-win Colorado team in 2007, he prefers not to consider what he would've been forced to do to fill out Wake's 2010 roster. "It just wouldn't have been good," he said. "Not good. In big, bold letters: NOT GOOD."
The Demon Deacons won't be an ACC contender this season, given how young their roster is and how much talent teams such as Duke and Virginia Tech have returning. What Bzdelik has, though, is a base of talent that should make Wake Forest powerful in 2-3 years. Beyond the well-balanced freshman class, which includes a top prospect at each position, he has two quality wing scorers in Harris (9.9 points per game in '09-10) and fellow sophomore Ari Stewart (7.3 ppg, 37.1 percent from three-point range), and a pair of serviceable big men in juniors Tony Woods and Ty Walker.
What Wake fans are most curious about is how, exactly, Bzdelik will make use of that personnel. Stewart said he was worried that the new coach would employ a Princeton-style offense like he ran at Air Force from 2005-07. "But when he met with us on his first week here," Stewart recalled, "He said, 'I'm not a dummy. I'm not going to run a Princeton offense when I have guys who can score the way you do. We're going to get out and run.' "
That was understandably what Wake players wanted to hear. Bzdelik feels that he has some strong open-court players at his disposal, and, he says, "The way you get to the open court well is start with your defense; get deflections or turnovers, and be rock-solid enough to force people into contested perimeter shots they don't want to take." Because of that, he says he's more likely to use his 2003-04 Denver Nuggets -- whom, he is quick to remind, led the NBA in fastbreak points and turnovers forced -- as a template for his first Wake team than he is to borrow stylistically from Air Force or Colorado. The fact that the Deacons have no Carmelo Anthony-like star or a tested point guard (Harris, a natural two-guard, says he plans on sharing the point with Chennault) just means Bzdelik will have to creatively adapt.
Bzdelik learned under one of the better personnel-adaptors in the NBA, Pat Riley, during six seasons as an assistant with the Miami Heat, and says that perhaps the college game's best adaptive coach is a few hours to the East, in Durham: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. It was actually Krzyzewski who, when the Blue Devils and Air Force were both in the CBE Classic in Kansas City in November 2006, took Bzdelik aside and told him Colorado was interested in him for its soon-to-be open job. "He told me, 'You need to go and look at Colorado long and hard, because you're not going to take the Academy much farther than where you've already taken them.' "
Bzdelik jumped to Boulder in the spring, and began to rebuild the Big 12's worst program, improving its record to 15-16 by '09-10 with a roster that included one of the league's best rookies, two-guard Alec Burks. Although Bzdelik had yet to make the kind of splash that typically attracts elite job offers, Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman reached out in April after he fired Gaudio. Wellman was a baseball coach at Northwestern in 1980 while Bzdelik was an assistant with the basketball team, and while they hadn't remained in contact since then, Wellman had remained impressed with Bzdelik's tactical work in the NBA and college, and was willing to take a risk on a coach with a sub-.500 record in a different major conference.
The differences between Colorado and Wake Forest are immense. The Buffaloes don't have the tradition, the facilities, the financial support, the crowds or the recruiting base that the Demon Deacons have. The circumstances of Bzdelik's hiring aren't the same, either. At Colorado there were no overwhelming expectations, whereas at Wake, he gets the tradition, the facilities, the support and the recruits, and is replacing someone who wasn't run off because of scandal or extreme failure. Gaudio was a 20-game winner who was fired simply because his teams slumped late in the season and didn't make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. That's the only thing, really, that Bzdelik is expected to change about Wake Forest.