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September 8, 2010
Bzdelik plans to keep Wake 'in the running'
Bzdelik, 57, has heard the speculation that he plans to slow down the tempo at Wake Forest because his successful Air Force teams played at a deliberate pace, even though he most recently used a different strategy at Colorado.
Or the notion that his new job stemmed at least in part from his history with athletic director Ron Wellman, though the two hadn't worked together in almost a quarter-century.
Bzdelik also has seen the preseason forecasts that suggest the Demon Deacons are headed for a rebuilding season. And he certainly doesn't buy that logic, either.
But even he is willing to concede this much: His arrival at Wake Forest was a bit of a shock. When Bzdelik finished his third season at Colorado last spring, he certainly never expected to be going anywhere.
"It caught me by surprise," Bzdelik said. "It came out of nowhere, so to speak."
Colorado had improved from 7-20 in the year before his arrival to 15-16 last season. With third-team All-Big 12 selection Cory Higgins and 2009-10 Big 12 freshman of the year Alec Burks coming back, Bzdelik seemed on the cusp of delivering a breakthrough season in Boulder. Then came a call from Wellman.
"There's a big light at the end of the tunnel at the University of Colorado," Bzdelik said. "I feel good about that. Leaving that particular situation was very difficult. What made it easy in some regards was to come to a school like Wake Forest.
"To me, Wake Forest is one of the very special places in the United States to coach basketball. There's a great blend of academic excellence, a great tradition, great support and the lure of the ACC. When the opportunity came, it was just too good to pass up."
Bzdelik's new job reunites him with Wellman. Their relationship began in the 1980s at Northwestern, where Bzdelik was working as an assistant coach and Wellman was coach of the Wildcats' baseball team.
After firing Dino Gaudio in April, Wellman wasted no time reaching out to his former colleague. One week later, Bzdelik was holding his introductory news conference at Wake.
Wake's coaching change raised some eyebrows because Gaudio was fired after leading the Demon Deacons to back-to-back NCAA tournaments -- including a second-round appearance last season -- though he was considered a better recruiter than tactician and his teams traditionally tailed off at the end of the year. Bzdelik has a different reputation: a superb tactician who gets the most out of his players but a guy who struggles to get top-level talent, the kind needed to win in the ACC.
Gaudio was 61-31 in three seasons at Wake Forest while Bzdelik went 36-58 in three years at Colorado, though that discrepancy may owe more to Wake's talent advantage than anything else.
Bzdelik and Wellman pointed out this wasn't the case of one friend reaching out to another. Wellman simply considered Bzdelik the best available candidate.
"[It's] unlike what people have made it out to be," Bzdelik said of his relationship with his new boss. "We probably went about 15 years without saying a word to each other. I'm not sure we've even ever gone out socially. It's a relationship based on respect, but not from a social aspect."
Bzdelik certainly has the necessary experience. His balanced resume includes head-coaching stops at the major-conference, mid-major and NBA levels.
After coaching the NBA's Denver Nuggets from 2003-05, Bzdelik enjoyed his greatest success at Air Force. The Falcons earned one NCAA tournament bid and posted a combined 50-16 record -- the most successful two-year period in school history -- during his brief tenure. He went from there to Colorado before landing at Wake.
That Air Force stint earned Bzdelik a reputation as a coach who likes to slow down the pace. Stats guru Ken Pomeroy's website (www.kenpom.com) shows that Air Force ranked 330th in the nation in possessions per 40 minutes in each of Bzdelik's two seasons. There were 334 Division I teams in 2006 and 336 in 2007.
Of course, that doesn't mean he plans to use a similar approach at Wake. Last season's Colorado team averaged 74.6 points per game -- a figure that would have ranked third in the ACC -- and ranked 82nd in the nation in possessions per 40 minutes. The Buffaloes scored 101 points against Texas Tech in their regular-season finale.
Bzdelik has grown tired of a label he considers misleading.
"I've answered this question about 200 times," Bzdelik said. "First of all, you take the talent you have and you do your best as a coach to be flexible and to put your talent in a place to succeed. It's all perception. My second year at Air Force … we beat the University of Georgia by over 30. We beat Colorado by over 30. We beat Stanford University at Stanford by over 30. We beat Wake Forest by over 30. We beat Santa Clara at Santa Clara by over 30.
"My point is, when you win by over 30 that many times over the quality of competition we were doing it against, you're not holding the basketball."
Sophomore guard C.J. Harris admitted Bzdelik's reputation worried him at first. He hadn't come to Wake Forest expecting to play in a patient, half-court offense. He wanted to run. Harris' initial conversations with his new coach ended those concerns.
"Rumor had it that he ran a Princeton offense over at Colorado and Air Force, and I was afraid of that, actually," Harris said. "But he came and cleared that up the first few days we were here."
Bzdelik certainly doesn't sound as if he's interested in slowing down the tempo at Wake.
"We need to get out and run," Bzdelik said. "We've got a team here at Wake Forest that, with the talent we have, we should be able to get out and go."
That's exactly what Harris and his teammates wanted to hear.
"We'll still be able to get up the floor and push it," Harris said. "He's a big fan of playing hard on defense and trying to create as much offense as we can with our defense. That just shows we're going to be running a lot."
But can he keep the Deacons in the running?
Harris is the only returning starter from last season's team. The Deacons must replace NBA lottery pick Al-Farouq Aminu, point guard Ish Smith, center Chas McFarland and defensive stopper L.D. Williams.
Bzdelik needs former five-star big men Tony Woods and Ty Walker to start living up to their potential as juniors. He also is hoping for immediate contributions from a four-man freshman class headlined by 6-foot-3 guard J.T. Terrell, rated by Rivals.com as having the best range of any shooting guard in the 2010 class.
The lack of proven performers has led to speculation that the Deacons won't return to the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season. Harris said he and his teammates have heard the dire forecasts that they will fall to the bottom half of the ACC standings.
None of that bothers Bzdelik.
He just helped rebuild a Colorado program that had lost almost three times as many games as it had won the year before his arrival. He now inherits a program in far better shape. He believes the Demon Deacons can -- and should -- win immediately.
"If you don't expect to win, you won't have a chance to win," Bzdelik said. "We need to have -- not necessarily an arrogance but a collective chip on our shoulder. There's a difference. There's a quiet collective chip -- without arrogance -- to know that every time we stop on the court, we do expect to win.
"That's just what any competitive athlete does. Our players are no different. We understand the responsibility we have."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.