Demon Deacons ready for Paradise Jam


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Infobox

2012 Paradise Jam

First-round matchups on Friday at the University of Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center

Mercer vs. George Mason, 2:30 p.m.

Illinois-Chicago vs. New Mexico, 5 p.m.

Wake Forest vs. Connecticut, 7:30 p.m.

Quinnipiac vs. Iona, 10 p.m.

Duncan's alma mater Wake Forest makes first appearance

ST. THOMAS - It's been nearly 20 years since the name Wake Forest began to resonate in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

St. Croix native and future NBA hall of famer Tim Duncan committed to the four-year university in Winston-Salem, N.C., and started a remarkable college basketball career in 1993. Duncan was a three-time All-American and the 1997 NCAA Player of the Year.

Wake Forest will make its first appearance in this week's Paradise Jam - the 12th annual men's tournament on St. Thomas.

Third-year coach Jeff Bzdelik (pronounced Buzz-del-ick) is looking to revive a program that hasn't won the Atlantic Coast Conference since back-to-back titles with Duncan in 1995 and 1996. The Paradise Jam will be a difficult test for a team with ten freshmen, but the location made picking the tournament an easy choice.

"Obviously, the opportunity to go to one of the most beautiful places in the world and to play great competition," Bzdelik said. "Also to honor Tim by coming back to his home country. I just think it's a win-win."

The Demon Deacons play the University of Connecticut at 7:30 p.m. on Friday in a tough first-round matchup at the University of the Virgin Islands Sports and Fitness Center.

Wake Forest won its first game of the season in a 79-67 home win over Radford University (Va.) on Friday. The Huskies upset then-No. 14 Michigan State on the same night to open the season in the Armed Forces Classic, a game played on a hangar at the U.S. Air Base in Ramstein, Germany.

"We obviously need to not turn the ball over and do a great job in defensive transition," Bzdelik said, "and match their intensity and their effort with loose balls and getting up and down the court."

Bzdelik started three freshmen in the team's opener, but is relying on senior guard C.J. Harris and junior forward Travis McKie to provide leadership and steady play. Harris earned a third-team All-ACC honor last season and ranks second among the conference's active players in career points (1,136). McKie was All-ACC honorable mention last year after leading the team in rebounding at 7.1 per game. Harris led Wake Forest in scoring (16.7), a shade above McKie (16.1).

"We play in the premiere conference in the United States and you really have to be special," Bzdelik said. "We lost seven games last year by two possessions, so it's a fine line. Every possession matters. You have to be gritty, tough and talented. We're getting there."

The ACC has NCAA powerhouse programs including the University of North Carolina, Duke University and North Carolina State University. Wake Forest is a short drive from all three schools.

Deacons with and without Duncan

Before the Tim Duncan era, Wake Forest played the role of youngest brother among the four ACC programs in North Carolina. The school had just two conference titles before the 90s and those came more than thirty years earlier in 1961 (the only Final Four appearance) and 1962.

Dave Odom, who recruited Duncan, enjoyed the most successful stint as head coach in terms of NCAA tournament appearances. Odom was at the helm from 1989 to 2001 and led the Deacons to eight tournaments, including seven in a row from 1991 and 1997.

The Duncan teams finished with no fewer than 21 wins each season and made the Elite 8 in 1996.

Skip Prosser succeeded Odom with four winning records in six seasons before dying of a massive heart attack in 2007. Assistant coach Dino Gaudio replaced Prosser, but was fired after three seasons for a lack of postseason success.

Bzdelik's teams have struggled in league play with just five wins in two seasons, but won 13 total games last season to best the mark of eight in 2010-11.

"Simply, to be quite frank, we had some issues unfortunately with some players that really took away form the ability to play good basketball and to win," Bzdelik said. "We're not gonna compromise our values here at Wake Forest and we had to make some tough decisions and you're not gonna win games playing the people we play unless you're unconditionally committed."

A handful of players have transferred or been dismissed, but Bzdelik is confident the team is headed in the right direction.

Duncan, in his 16th year with the San Antonio Spurs, is one of eight former Wake Forest players in the NBA and is a four-time champion. The 6-foot-11 power forward has won three NBA Finals MVP awards, been selected to nine All-NBA first teams, eight All-Defensive first-teams and was the Rookie of the Year in 1998.

Chris Paul, of the Los Angeles Clippers, is widely regarded as one of the best passers and overall players in the league. Paul is a two-time All-NBA first-teamer and played at Wake Forest for two seasons in the mid-2000s.

- Contact Tim Chapman at 714-9102 or tchapman@dailynews.vi.

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