Is Wake Forest’s Victory Over UNC a Stepping Stone or an Aberration?Posted by Lathan Wells on January 6th, 2014
After Wake Forest’s upset win over North Carolina on Sunday night, it’s easy to conveniently revert to the narrative of the “Jekyll and Hyde” performances of UNC at this point in the season. Lost in the conversation could be how big the win could prove for Jeff Bzdelik’s Demon Deacons, a team that may not have dealt with the roster and eligibility concerns of the Heels but have been a program in flux since he took over three years ago and has struggled to resurrect a disenchanted fan base. The momentum this win could carry would be huge for a basketball program that has unquestionably fallen on hard times since the shocking death of Skip Prosser in 2007. The question is whether last night’s win was the work of a team simply motivated to win its conference home opener against an historic rival, or whether the Deacons are finally turning a corner to better and brighter things.
The sustainability of Wake’s winning ways can certainly be debated, just as much as the oft-maligned Bzdelik’s ability to reinvigorate its fan base. Wake is coming off of a relatively weak non-conference slate — the Demon Deacons entered the game at 10-3 — and the atmosphere for its ACC opener at the Joel was somewhat disappointing with a strong UNC presence in the stands. Still, a win over the Tar Heels represents a quality victory — perhaps Wake’s second-best in the Bzdelik era behind a win over Miami last season — but certainly not a shocking one given UNC’s own struggles this season. Early foul trouble on James Michael McAdoo and J.P. Tokoto and an inordinate number of sloppy turnovers doomed UNC’s chances at a second half comeback, putting some of the onus on Carolina for the loss rather than Wake Forest manufacturing the victory.
However, the toughness displayed by a team with seven scholarship sophomores in a contest that became close late with momentum swinging the Tar Heels’ way can’t be overlooked, either. Wake is a team that somehow shoots free throws more poorly than UNC and has shown quite a bit of difficulty in handling full-court pressure. Yet the Deacons held on for the big home victory with four of their next five conference match-ups coming on the road. The positives? Devin Thomas has proven to be a force on the glass (nine rebounds); the team has a formidable frontcourt that matched intensity with arguably the deepest cohort of big men in the ACC; and, the Decas actually hit their free throws at the most crucial moments. Typically these are signs of a team that has grown up and understands the magnitude of how much each play, and each conference game, means.
Wake Forest has a team that is building cohesion despite its youth, and a team that seems motivated to elevate the perception of their coach amid a firestorm for his ouster. Is Wake Forest disciplined enough to build off of this victory and become a surprise player in this year’s ACC? The statistics from this win don’t definitively give us an answer, but the discernible emotion and enthusiasm from the squad in last night’s contest could lean towards the affirmative. The counterargument is that the Deacs were fired up at home to play a shaky North Carolina team, and will quickly revert back to the squad that wasn’t competitive with Xavier a little over a week ago. Only time will tell as to which way this will lead, but if the Demon Deacons can spin this win into a stepping stone and not an aberration, Wake Forest may finally have a team that can make positive strides toward respectability this year and become a contender in seasons to come. For a fan base long on justified complaints and short on patience, last night’s win represents a corner rounded — the only question is what awaits the team on the other side of it.