Paradise Island, Bahamas — Wake Forest University’s men’s basketball players might be young, but they’re not that young.
At least that’s the way coach Jeff Bzdelik sees it.
Even with 11 sophomores, including starters Madison Jones, Codi Miller-McIntyre, Tyler Cavanaugh and Devin Thomas, the fourth-year coach won’t worry one second about his players feeling awestruck or nervous when they take on No. 2-ranked Kansas in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis this afternoon at Imperial Arena.
The Demon Deacons (5-0), after all, hail from the vaunted ACC. They know all about competing against the nation’s elite programs, even if they took some lumps along the way, going 6-12 in the conference last season.
“They’ve played Duke, North Carolina, those kinds of teams, Miami (FL),” Bzdelik said Wednesday. “It’s not that, ‘Wow. This is Kansas.’ … They’ve been there. And we have tremendous respect for Kansas, their tradition, their talent, their coaching, et cetera. But we feel good about ourselves, too. So we’re looking forward to this challenge.”
Last season, the coach noted, freshmen accounted for 62 percent of Wake Forest’s minutes. Still, the Deacons knocked off No. 2 Miami and No. 18 North Carolina State for two of their ACC victories.
Wake’s lone senior and the fifth member of the starting lineup, forward Travis McKie (12.2 points, 6.2 rebounds), has played against eventual NBA lottery picks before. So that won’t be anything new, either, when KU faces Wake Forest for the first time since 2001.
“They have a lot of talent,” McKie said of the Jayhawks (4-0). “I’m not gonna sugarcoat that. They have a lot of good athletes. But I’ve been around the league three years and seen a lot of high-level athletes. For me, it’s just about will against will. If we limit them in transition and we run our stuff, and we play as hard as we can play, we’re gonna have an opportunity to win the game. It’s up to us to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Miller-McIntyre, a point guard who leads the Demon Deacons with averages of 18.6 points and 4.8 assists, said they don’t mind taking a shock-the-world approach to facing Kansas.
“We feel like we’re underdogs, and that’s one thing I love about being here with my teammates, the coaching staff I have,” the 6-foot-3 sophomore said. “Every game we come in, we feel like we have a point to prove, which is not bad. I like approaching a game like that, nothing to lose but everything to gain from being in that type of situation.”
Wake Forest has cruised through its non-conference schedule so far, beating pedestrian opponents Colgate, VMI, Presbyterian, Jacksonville and The Citadel, all by double digits, with an average margin of victory of 18.8 points.
In order to have success against KU, Bzdelik said Wake Forest better keep near its average of 9.4 turnovers a game. Live turnovers, as opposed to dead-ball situations, the coach added, will prove even more crushing.
“Kansas, like most teams — especially Kansas — they’re very, very potent in transition,” Bzdelik said. “We are, too.”
If the Deacons have their way they will push the ball just as much as the Jayhawks.
Said Miller-McIntyre: “That’s what we do best. When we get in transition, we’re extremely tough to be stopped. From film I’ve watched, they’re the exact same, so that’s where limiting turnovers will come into play.”
KU coach Bill Self agreed that the first-round opponents have some comparable tendencies.
“I’ve coached against Jeff a few times, you know, because he was at Colorado, but based on what they run on tape so far in their five games, I’d say they run some similar things to what we do, without question,” Self said. “I don’t know if it’s exactly the same, but I think in theory it’s very similar. A lot of ball screens, they like to spread the floor and drive it. … That’s one thing that we like to do, too, so there are some similarities.”