In the middle of watching another one of Wake Forest guard Tyree Appleby's scoring bonanzas -- this one a 27-point effort in a narrow 75-73 loss at Duke last month -- I sent out a half-joking tweet.
"If Tyree Appleby doesn't have an NIL deal with @Applebees, what is the point of NIL?" I asked rhetorically on Twitter.
Little did I know, a Name, Image and Likeness deal between Appleby and Applebee's was already in the works. In fact, it had started way back in mid-November, when the season was just a week old and Appleby delivered an overtime buzzer-beater for the ages to beat Utah Valley.
"Everybody kept tagging Applebee's, and Applebee's commented on the picture," Appleby told CBS Sports. "And you know I had to comment back like a minute after."
Thus came one of the more wholesome NIL deals you'll see -- Appleby campaigning for Applebee's to "fix" the spelling with a series of lighthearted videos, complete with T-shirts and "Y NOT?" pins.
"I'm trying to do a little something," Appleby said sheepishly when asked about his acting skills. "My go-to is probably to get some wings and some fries -- some buffalo wings and fries, it's like, you can never go wrong with that."
It's a great match, as both places can come in clutch late when you need them. Appleby, in his first year as a Demon Deacon after two seasons at Cleveland State and three seasons at Florida (including a redshirt year), is leading the ACC in points per game (18.7), assists per game (6.2) and minutes per game (36.1). He's been an indispensable part of an offense that ranks third in the conference in points per game.
But before he could lead the Demon Deacons' high-powered attack, Wake Forest had to prove itself to him, too. A highly sought-after player in the transfer portal following Mike White's departure, Appleby didn't need long to feel like a priority to Wake Forest's staff.
"They flew down to Florida to come see me, so I thought that was really genuine," Appleby said. "So I took a visit, and it just felt like a new home when I got down here, like instantly."
While others have claimed differently when it comes to Wake Forest, Appleby was never looking for NIL reasons. He noted he had plenty of success with that at Florida, after all. Rather, he was looking for a place where he could fit, feel trust and honesty, and, most importantly, "just play."
"My coaches have given me a different level of confidence, for sure," Appleby said. "When I got here, [coach Steve Forbes] told me he would never lie to me. He would always keep it real with me and everything like that. That's what I wanted. I can go into the office, talk to him all the time. I feel like we do have that love relationship for sure."
That relationship plus an offseason spent focusing on shooting and ball-handling have paid major dividends. Appleby is shooting over 43% from the field -- way up from the 36% he posted in his final season at Florida -- while raising his assist and rebounding rates and cutting his turnover rate to a career-low 15.7%. By several advanced metrics, he's having by far his best collegiate season. By his personal metrics, he's also blossoming off the court as a sixth-year senior leader hoping to lead the Demon Deacons to their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2017.
"I'm trying to keep my guys' heads on straight," Appleby said. "We dropped a couple of games in the conference that we had a very good chance of winning. So [I say] 'Just staying motivated,' and I'm letting the team know that we have plenty of opportunities to make the Tournament. We just have to keep our heads up, stay on the path and stay on the grind."
The Demon Deacons converted one of those opportunities Tuesday night in a 92-85 win over reigning national runner-up North Carolina. Unsurprisingly, it was Appleby leading the way with 35 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds. He became just the second ACC player to have a 35-point, 10-assist game over the last 25 years, along with Maryland's Greivis Vásquez.
Along the way, Appleby broke ACC single-game records for free throws made (23) and attempted (28) to hold off the Tar Heels' furious late rally.
"I was definitely surprised," Appleby said. "During the game, it didn't feel like I shot that many free throws. ... Coming back and them telling me how many free throws I made and how many I attempted, it felt like a crazy, crazy moment. You never think you'll do something like that in a real game."
It's going to take more big moments to get Appleby and his team to the NCAA Tournament. The Demon Deacons remain on the outside looking in according to CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm, but they're not far off, having won two straight after four consecutive losses, three of which came by exactly two points. Wake Forest will get two chances at crucial Quadrant 1 wins next week -- at No. 19 Miami and at No. 22 NC State -- to improve its resume before March begins.
Appleby played in the 2021 NCAA Tournament with Florida, but the Gators missed out last year, a disappointment that Appleby said strongly motivates him this season. As for his team, his message will be the same one he would have told himself all those years ago as an undersized, overlooked recruit out of the small town of Jacksonville, Arkansas.
"I would say 'Always believe in yourself,' for sure," Appleby said. "'Nothing's ever impossible. Keep believing in yourself.'"