For Frank Johnson, this was supposed to be the year. The Wake Forest senior was expected to be the catalyst of the Deacons' young basketball team that had high hopes based on the return of Johnson and four talented freshmen from last season.
For Benny McKaig, this year was to be devoted to graduate studies in psychology. He had graduated from Wake Forest last spring after playing a total of 39 minutes for the Deacons as a senior, taking three shots and scoring four points all year.
For Wake Coach Carl Tacy, this was to be a year of redemption, a year when his gamble of playing four freshmen extensively during a 12-15 season in 1979 paid off with a record more similar to 1977's 22-8 or 1978's 19-10.
For all three men, a brief moment in September changed their plans, their year and their outlooks.
It was the afternoon of Sept. 12. Johnson, the Deacon point guard, floor leader and leading scorer, was playing in a pick-up game in the Wake Forest gym.
"I was just kind of running the baseline at half-speed," Johnson remembered. "I started to turn, not hard or anything, and I heard a popping sound in my left foot. I went down, the pain was real bad.
"I got back up and tried to move on it and I couldn't. I went right to the trainer and his first reaction was that I had probably broken something in my foot."
Trainer Jody Puckett's diagnosis proved correct. The metatarsal bone in the foot was broken. It required surgery, and Johnson spent October in a cast.
That left Tacy with a problem. The doctors were telling him that if everything went right, Johnson could be back at full speed by the season opener Nov. 30 against Duke. But there also was a chance that the problem would linger -- as it has for Michigan State center Jay Vincent, who suffered a similar injury a year ago.
Tacy's only other point guard was a freshman, Kenny Vaughns. The previous spring, Tacy had politely let McKaig know that, even though he had another year of elibility left, his services would not be required.
Now, he needed McKaig.
McKaig, 6-foot-4, from Raleigh, N.C., was married, living off campus and immersed in his studies. But he jumped at the chance to play another year of basketball.
"I love the game and I enjoy all the guys on this team," he said. "I never hesitated when Coach Tacy asked me to come back."
How much McKaig would play depended strictly on Johnson's recovery. He was an insurance policy and he knew it. Johnson began practicing in mid-November. As the doctors had predicted, he has little trouble going straight ahead, but lateral movement was painful.
When Wake started season, McKaig was in the starting lineup.
"I wanted to play really badly," Johnson said. "I was all psyched up for this year. I knew it was going to be our year. But one day I would feel fine n practice, one day I would have to sit out because the pain was so bad. It was frustrating."
It also was frustrating for Tacy, whose team had an off-year in '79. This year, the Deacons appeared ready to at least be competitive in the ACC.
Much of that optimism, though, centered on a healthy Johnson. "Frank is our leader, not just because he's our playmaker but because he's a senior and he's the man everyone on this team has grown accustomed to looking to in pressure situations," Tacy said. "Obviously, we need him in the lineup."
For five games, Johnson tried to play. Tacy used him as a substitute in both Big Four Tournament games, but he was ineffective. Then, he started two games, and played better. But every time he sat on the bench for a while, the foot swelled. He sat out a game, then traveled with the team to Philadelphia Dec. 15 to give it one last try against Temple.
The game would be Johnson's fifth of the season. If he stopped playing after that game, he could sit out the rest of the season and be eligible to play again next year.
"I played 17 minutes the first half and I still couldn't move well laterally," Johnson said. "Then, warming up for the second half, it didn't feel right. When I went in the game, it was very sore."
Johnson met with Tacy the next day. Tacy told him the decision was his and his alone. Johnson decided to sit the season out.
"I didn't want my last season to be one of in and out, in and out," Johnson said. "I wanted to play a whole season and enjoy it. Sitting out is hard because sitting on the bench and not being able to really do anything is frustrating. But next year it will be worth it."
This year, though, without Johnson, the Deacons (7-6) have their troubles.
With McKaig on the point they lose speed, experience and a consistent outside shooter, although as the ACC season got going, McKaig began shooting a little better. However, his average has hovered around three points per game.
"I'm not Frank Johnson; I just don't have that kind of ability," said McKaig. "We've been so close in every game that it frustrates me because I keep thinking if I could just do a little extra, it would be different.
"I'm glad I'm playing though, I'm enjoying the experience. These guys are so much quicker than me, I'm like in slow-motion with them half the time."
McKaig is a worker, a smart player and, according to everyone who comes in contact with him, as nice a person as you could meet. But he is not Frank Johnson.
Thus, Tacy and his team are struggling once again.
"I try not to think about 'what-ifs," Tacy said after a crucial steal from McKaig had keyed a four-point loss to North Carolina last week. "Frank's not with us, he isn't going to be with us. There's no sense thinking that way."
For Tacy and Johnson there is the bright prospect of next year, when the four sophomore starters will be juniors and it is hoped, a healthy Johnson will return.
For McKaig, this year is the last year. He isn't complaining. "This team can turn it around," he insisted. "We're so close . . ."
Probably just a Frank Johnson away.