No ACC team struggled more than Wake Forest last season, when the Demon Deacons finished 8-24 overall and 1-15 in conference play in Coach Jeff Bzdelik’s debut.
But the Wake Forest squad that travels to Comcast Center on Wednesday for Maryland’s ACC home opener is a more formidable bunch, riding a wave of confidence after toppling Virginia Tech, 58-55, on Saturday. It was the Demon Deacons’ first ACC victory since Jan. 29, 2011, and they won in clutch fashion, with junior guard C.J. Harris making two three-pointers in the final 65 seconds.
Maryland (10-5, 0-1) is also a far different squad than the one that handed Wake Forest two of its 15 ACC defeats last season, and the Terrapins hope to rebound at the Deacons’ expense after dropping their ACC opener at North Carolina State, 79-74, on Sunday.
Maryland’s young starting lineup came away with a host of lessons from the defeat in Raleigh, according to point guard Pe’Shon Howard, who summed them up as lessons in toughness — or the lack of it.
The Terrapins paid dearly for their lack of mental grit in the second half against N.C. State, veering from Coach Mark Turgeon’s defensive script and failing to run hard enough to get in proper position to defend. The result was a 13-2 run by the Wolfpack from which Maryland never recovered.
There was also the matter of the Terrapins’ physical toughness — from the guards’ weary legs to the big men’s inability to hold their ground under the rim and convert second-chance points, battered and denied repeatedly by N.C. State’s post players.
“In the ACC, you’ve got to be tougher,” Howard said. “We were tough, but we’ve got to be tougher.”
Howard included himself among those coming up short. Having missed the first nine games of the season with a broken left foot, Howard conceded that he wasn’t yet in adequate “game shape” to play with the speed and explosiveness required to compete 35 minutes against N.C. State.
Maryland’s freshman center Alex Len, who missed the first 10 games because of NCAA eligibility issues, isn’t yet in “game shape” either, Turgeon conceded. Nonetheless, Len delivered his first double-double (12 points, 11 rebounds) in 31 minutes of work.
Maryland’s guards and big men can expect a challenge from Wake Forest (10-5, 1-0). The Demon Deacons boast two of the ACC’s four leading scorers in Harris (18.3 points per game) and 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Travis McKie (17.5 ppg).
“We’re not world-beaters,” Turgeon conceded. But “it’s more about us, to be honest. It’s really about how much better are we going to get tomorrow night.”
After giving players Monday off, Turgeon said he intended to focus Tuesday’s practice on the defensive and rebounding lapses that he felt cost the Terrapins a victory against N.C. State.
“That’s the whole game,” Turgeon said. “The whole game. That’s who we are, and we’ve got to get rid of those plays.”
Trailing 54-51 with just more than 10 minutes to play, Maryland didn’t run back quickly enough to defend 6-9 center DeShawn Painter on consecutive possessions. On the next sequence, a miscommunication between two Terrapins meant they failed to switch the players they were supposed to defend. On the next possession, three players didn’t run the right defense. And the next time, Maryland failed to box out with authority.
“We’re just going through growing pains,” Turgeon said, echoing Bzdelik’s sentiments his inaugural season at Wake Forest. “We’re going through a first-year coach, new system, new players playing. We all go through it.”