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Jan. 11, 2012
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Asked to describe the attributes of sophomore forward Travis McKie, the first adjective used by Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik was “fearless.”
It shows in the way the 6-foot-7 McKie attacks the boards against bigger players. It shows in the way he defends anyone from big guards to centers. It shows in the way he hustles constantly and doesn’t hesitate to get a floor burn in pursuit of a loose ball.
Asked about the description, McKie said it fit him well. And there’s a good reason why.
“You had to be fearless playing basketball on the playgrounds growing up,” he said of his youth in Richmond, Va. “I was always playing against bigger and older guys and you learn that you can’t back down from anyone.
“I first remember playing at 7 or 8 years old and nobody cut me any slack. If I got knocked down, they would tell me to get up and play defense. I took my lumps, but it made me a better player.”
And what a player he is turning out to be, although he’s far from a finished product. McKie is averaging 17.5 points (second on the team and fourth in the ACC) and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 50.3 percent and contributing solidly on defense.
The Deacons may be the most improved team in the ACC. After an awful 8-24 record that included a 1-15 mark in league play in 2010-11, they have regrouped and are now 10-5 and 1-0. They won their ACC opener last weekend with a 58-55 surprise over Virginia Tech.
“After you were 1-15 last year, it’s a great start,” McKie said after the game.
Ever the realist, though, McKie added that after enjoying the win Saturday night, the team would buckle down to prepare for Maryland, which it faces on the road tonight. He knows that Wake Forest, despite being better, is still a team with little margin for error.
McKie has long had a passion for basketball. He said “it seems as if I grew up with a basketball in my hands.” His dad played at Virginia Union and his godfather is former NC State standout Dereck Whittenburg. As it turned out, neither taught him the finer points of the game. He learned those by playing in his backyard and on the playgrounds.
By middle school he knew he was pretty good and had a college future. He grew from 6-2 as a high school freshman to his present height, but laments that he didn’t grow a couple of inches taller.
“Maybe I have one spurt left in me,” he said with a laugh, adding that it’s doubtful.
At John Marshall High School McKie ranked among the top small forwards in the country and attracted plenty of recruiting attention. Virginia Tech, he recalled, was probably the first school to offer him a scholarship, but he eventually chose Wake Forest.
“I wanted to be my own person,” he said of his decision to go out of state. “I wanted to get far enough away so I couldn’t go home very weekend, but not too far.”
Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said “we recruited Travis real hard” and liked his athleticism.
“He’s quick, he pursues the ball, he plays with good energy, he’s versatile,” Greenberg said. “He can beat you off the bounce, he’s making some shots, he runs the court, he does a lot of different things.”
The thing he did particularly well against the Hokies was rebound – he matched a career high with 15 boards.
“You just have to have the mindset that you’re going to get every rebound that comes off the boards,” McKie said. “That’s where being fearless comes in.”
After the Deacons had a stretch of games with lackluster rebounding results, Bzdelik said they did “every rebounding drill known to man” in preparation for Virginia Tech, paying off in a 42-31 advantage.
“We struggled the whole season with rebounding as a team,” McKie said. “We wanted to come into the ACC (schedule) with a different identity and we did that.
“We did that for the last three days, every drill you can think of. When we rebound we give ourselves a chance to win against anybody. If we keep rebounding the way we’re doing, we’re going to be successful.”
There was little success for the Deacons to enjoy last year, although McKie made a strong impression by topping the team with averages of 13 points and 7.7 rebounds while spending a good deal of his time at power forward, a new position.
This year he has played more minutes on the perimeter, although Wake isn’t deep enough for him to play there exclusively. He still has to be counted on for scoring and rebounds inside.
McKie and junior guard C.J. Harris are the undisputed leaders of this team. Harris’ value is such that when he missed a nonconference game against Wofford the Deacons lost, despite 25 points and six rebounds from McKie. Against Virginia Tech, it was Harris who hit back-to-back 3-pointers to win the game at the end.
Harris is a leader by example while McKie is more outspoken, not afraid to voice his opinions to his teammates when needed…The rest of the Deacons benefit from the divergent styles.
“Where do I start?” said Harris when asked about McKie. “He’s an amazing rebounder, he’s one of the best in our conference, and he can do that night in and night out. He’s a guy you have to respect from the 3 and you have to respect him inside. He really can do it all. He fills the stat sheet and brings leadership on the court.”
Sophomore point guard Tony Chennault is McKie’s roommate and understands what he means to the Deacons.
“The unsung hero,” Chennault called him. “He doesn’t feel like he gets the credit he deserves. Honestly, he does the things that are overlooked. If you don’t know a lot about basketball, you won’t understand how vital he is to this team.”
One of those overlooked things came against Virginia Tech when McKie snatched a defensive rebound, saw Chennault break down court and hit him with an over-the-head, two-handed outlet pass that Chennault converted for a layup.
McKie averaged 31.1 minutes per game as a freshman and has increased that to 35 minutes a game (also Harris’ average) this year. Bzdelik said McKie tired down the stretch of last season and he will try to manage things in practice to try keep the legs of his best two players fresh.
So how much has McKie improved from last year?
“I think he’s a little smarter, more versatile player in terms of understanding situations a little bit better,” Bzdelik said. “I know in a game recently he got doubled in the post and he understands now where open guys might be. He’s worked hard throughout the summertime to add versatility to his game, off the dribble and moving without the ball. I think he’s having a terrific year.”
One thing McKie is trying to impart to his teammates is an expectation of winning, even in games n which the Deacons will obviously be outmanned. He said the team chemistry is much improved this season and the team is gaining a belief in itself, which was born out by winning the kind of game against Virginia Tech that it would have lost last season.
“If you don’t believe in something you’re not going to do it,” McKie said. “The win was great for our team morale; it will get some guys to believe we can compete in the ACC. I think we’ll be hungrier because we believe more.”
Now, if some of his fearless attitude rubs off on his teammates, the Deacons might really get something going.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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