WINSTON-SALEM (AP) — The best thing about all those freshmen that dominated Wake Forest’s roster last year is that now they’re sophomores.
Only two current players saw the court for the Demon Deacons as recently as two seasons ago — and one of them didn’t play last year because he was injured.
And coach Jeff Bzdelik hopes all those young players have grown up.
“They’re older, they’re wise, they’re stronger, they’re more mature,” Bzdelik said Tuesday during the team’s preseason media day.
“They gained a valuable understanding of what’s expected to win at this level. They’ve improved their bodies, they’ve improved their minds, they’ve improved their skill. And in a collective way, they’re excited about their future.”
After three straight losing seasons, the Demon Deacons hope their future is now.
This is a critical year for Wake Forest, which started at least three freshmen in all but three games last season and went on to finish 13-18 for the second straight year.
Their 6-12 record in Atlantic Coast Conference play included some big wins — home upsets of nationally ranked Miami and North Carolina State — but no league victories away from Winston-Salem.
“We know what to expect now, so expectations are higher,” sophomore big man Devin Thomas said. “We have the expectations that coach has for us. We hold ourselves accountable.”
Forward Travis McKie, the only fourth-year senior on the roster, says he sees “a lot more confidence” out of a sophomore class led by Thomas, an all-ACC freshman team selection, and guards Codi Miller-McIntyre and Madison Jones.
“Just how they walk, they’re sure about themselves and I’m sure that’s going to carry a long way into the season,” McKie said.
McKie and forward Daniel Green are the only remaining players from the 2011-12 team, and Green redshirted last year after tearing a knee ligament.
That injury wound up leading to more court time in critical situations for big men Thomas and Arnaud William Adala Moto.
At times, they flourished. Thomas had season highs of 25 points and 14 rebounds in the upset of N.C. State, and Miller-McIntyre scored 15 points as the Demon Deacons knocked off the then-No. 2 Hurricanes.
But at other times, things didn’t go quite as well.
Thomas and Miller-McIntyre were each 3 of 10 in a rock-bottom, 20-point loss to a bad Georgia Tech team that at one point led Wake Forest 37-7. The Demon Deacons lost all but two games away from Winston-Salem last year, and one of those road wins was a 30-minute drive away in Greensboro.
“In certain situations, we did not handle that well because we weren’t so used to it,” McKie said. “If one person messes up, it messes up the rest of the five. … You can’t practice those in-game situations when you’re down one, up one, and I think the more experience you have, the more comfortable you are in your own skin … the better the outcome.”
One of the marks of an inexperienced team is an inability to win close games — especially on the road — and last year’s Wake Forest team dropped seven games by two possessions or less.
Bzdelik says he reviewed each of those tight losses and counted how many charging calls, loose balls and other breaks went to their opponents — and went to work on finding ways to make those loose balls bounce his team’s way.
“Now, they understand that, and if you guys want to get to postseason play and if you want to have a winning season, every possession matters, guys,” Bzdelik said. “They understand that … because now we have a reference point.”