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Jan. 15, 2013
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – It’s not true that gray hairs are sprouting in the beard sported by Wake Forest guard C.J. Harris.
But being kidded about it comes with the territory of being the only senior on a roster with seven freshmen.
“You wouldn’t believe how much I get that,” Harris said with a chuckle. “Coach (Jeff Bzdelik) tells me that literally every day.
“But I don’t mind being the oldest one. They listen to what I have to say and they respect the things I’ve been through and the experience that I have. I look at it as an honor to be this old, even though I’m only 21.”
The Deacons’ “old man” has been playing especially well of late. His career-high 29 points helped push Wake to a 75-72 win over Boston College on Saturday, Heading into their game at Clemson tonight, the Deacons are 2-1 in the ACC and 9-6 overall.
Clemson’s vocal home crowd will provide a good test. Wake has won its last four at home and needs to establish that it can win some road games. The freshmen were exposed to that world in their first ACC outing of the season, an 80-62 loss at Duke.
“They learned how tough the atmospheres are at Duke,” Harris said. “They have a sense of how tough it’s going to be to play against a team on their home court. They know we have to stay together and stay the course and grind it out on the road.”
Harris knows something about grinding it out. As a freshman he was a key part of a team that went to the NCAA Tournament and won its first round game. After a coaching change the Deacons plunged into two dark seasons when they went 5-27 in ACC play.
Through it all, the Winston-Salem native has been a fixture in the lineup, starting 98 of 108 career games. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 9.9 points as a freshman playing off the ball, then 10.3 as a sophomore playing the point and 16.7 as a junior playing both positions.
This season, with freshmen Codi Miller-McIntyre and Madison Jones running the point, Harris is back to his natural position playing off the ball. He still controls the ball in situations if the shot clock is winding down or when the Deacons need a play near the end of a game.
“I definitely like to have the ball in my hands in crunch-time situations,” he said, “and we have designed things to get the ball to me during those times.”
The Deacons ran a number of those plays for Harris early in the Boston College game. They fell behind 10-0 before Travis McKie hit two free throws to break the ice. But their first field goal didn’t come until 14:45 remained in the first half when Harris swished a jumper.
That ignited a run of 11 consecutive points by Harris during which he hit five straight jumpers, including a 3-pointer. His streak brought the Deacons back into the game, which they ultimately won. Things were flowing so well Harris said he wasn’t aware that he had scored 11 in a row.
“I just felt good,” he said. “The offense did a great job of getting me open, they found me, coach kept coming to me. I had the easy part – I just had to make the shot.”
Overall he hit 10 of 13 as he eclipsed his previous career best of 28 points set against Seton Hall earlier this season.
“When he’s shooting the ball like that he’s the best player on the floor,” said McKie, “so you’ve got to continue to give him the ball.”
Miller-McIntyre said the entire team fed off the performance.
“Once he got going then the crowd got going and it got us hyped and ready to play,” the freshman said.
Over the last seven games Harris has sizzled from the floor, hitting 44 of 72 shots (61.1 percent) and 20 of 34 3-point attempts (58.8 percent).
“I can’t remember a time in my career I’ve shot it this consistently,” he said. “I’m comfortable in the offense, I’m getting open and guys are finding me.”
While the points are certainly important, they are only part of the value Harris brings to this team. Bzdelik counts on him, along with junior McKie and sophomore Chase Fischer, to be a true team leader. That has been a developing process for Harris, who is low-key by nature.
That served him well as a freshman when he never spoke up and instead looked to seniors like Ish Smith and L.D. Williams for advice and answers. That has gradually changed during this career and playing the point helped his communication skills.
“I like to lead by example, that’s my M.O.,” Harris said. “People see me running the floor, taking charges, things like that, and the other veterans do that as well. That shows the freshmen this is how things are supposed to be done. If we walk around, if we loaf around, they’ll think that’s OK, so the veterans are really trying to lead by example more than anything.”
In practices, team captains Harris, McKie and Fischer can each call one timeout if they see things aren’t going well.
“Coach always says that good teams aren’t coach-directed, they’re player-directed,” Harris said. “If practice is getting sloppy, we can call that timeout and bring everybody together, get everybody going, talk it out and then get back to practice.”
The coach gave Harris a “player-driven” opportunity during practice Sunday.
“C.J. came up to me and we talked about something that was a very valid point.” Bzdelik said. “I said ‘you know, I want you to teach these young guys; you tell them and you teach them.’ I literally stopped practice and had him go through something that needed an adjustment.”
Bzdelik said Harris has shown the freshmen what kind of work ethic and commitment it takes to play at the ACC level.
“His personality by nature is quiet young man,” Bzdelik said, “but he’s very driven when he’s on the basketball court, very driven in the way he conducts himself. When he does speak, which is not often, all of a sudden (the players’) ears perk up and they listen and they focus in on him.”
Harris said the freshmen, who don’t have cars, have bonded as a group because they’ve been together constantly since they arrived on campus. The few older players have gotten to know them well by giving them rides to places they need to go. The result is a closely knit team that is beginning to mature.
“This year we’re a complete team,” Harris said. “We love hanging out with each other, we mesh together on and off the court and little things like that have really helped us this season.”
The question is, what will it all lead to? While it’s nice to be part of laying the foundation for the future, Harris wants the success to begin in his final college season.
“I’m very hungry to do that,” he said, “and everybody here is hungry to do that. The past two years have been tough and we want to get over that (hurdle) and start winning games.
“I think we have a great chance to do well in the ACC. We just have to take it day by day and game by game, keep working and getting better in practice, stay in focus and we should be all right.”
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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