MILWAUKEE — The door opens to a wall of sound at the Al McGuire Center. It’s Monday, Aug. 3, and a four-game tour of Italy is a week away for Marquette. During a practice on home soil, preparation is fast, meticulous and loud. One assistant coach, Stan Johnson, crouches in a defensive stance on the sideline hollering instructions during a four-on-four drill. Another assistant, Brett Nelson, stands under the basket and barks his own counsel. Players shout to each other above the din, or try to. Defensive stops are the goal. First side to five points, earned by buckets or by preventing them, wins. The losing team sprints.
Steve Wojciechowski, the Golden Eagles’ second-year head coach, stalks the action on the perimeter with a whistle in his mouth. His team returns just four players who saw game action last winter. At this stage, Marquette’s unpredictability matches its promise. Thus the late July work is fundamental: Coaches drill down on the footwork for defensive closeouts. They issue reminders not to leave shooters in the corner. They lament a possession lost because no one blocked out for a rebound.
In one decisive sequence, Henry Ellenson, the team’s talented 6’10” freshman, drives baseline and collides with forward Luke Fischer. Fischer falls, and a cloudburst of noise follows. Ellenson is whistled for a charge he doesn’t agree with and the players in blue jerseys line up to run. Ellenson quietly protests, saying he thought the stop left the team in white one point short of a win.
“A charge is worth two,” Wojciechowski replies. For a former Duke standout and assistant coach, of course it is. The sprints commence.
This is elementary stuff, and the advantage for Marquette is introducing it in the middle of summer instead of when practice formally opens across the country in the fall. It’s a chance for coaches to train concepts and create a culture early, all in an effort to bury last year’s 13-win season. Over two recent days, Sports Illustrated got an inside look at what seems like almost a fresh start for the Golden Eagles, who have a roster in line with their coach’s personality and, thanks to the Italy adventure, a head start in crafting it.
“To be able to run practices and get the flow, the chemistry and know where everyone fits in—and ahead of like every other team—this is big-time for us,” sophomore forward Sandy Cohen says. “By the time (Midnight) Madness comes around, it’s going to be second nature.”
Foreign tours are an opportunity both to solder team chemistry and to accelerate a unit’s basketball growth. Notre Dame’s Elite Eight run last March, for example, was built in part on its own Italy trip the previous summer. (The Irish were ousted by from the NCAA tournament by Kentucky, which had taken a preseason trip to the Bahamas.) Of the 36 major-conference teams that embarked on foreign tours in the last five years, 20 increased their win total from the previous season, per research by USA Today.
Marquette hopes to follow the trend, though it hardly could fare much worse this winter. The Golden Eagles tied Creighton for last in the Big East with a 4-14 mark last year. Part of that was due to roster attrition. Guard Todd Mayo had turned pro during the summer of 2014 and forward Deonte Burton transferred in December. Then injuries piled up: Leading scorer Matt Carlino missed more than two weeks with a concussion, and forward Juan Anderson was hampered by a sprained ankle for a month. “It was hard coming to practice every day,” says Fischer, who played through a torn labrum, had surgery in March and was cleared for contact in July.
With only seven or eight available scholarship players, those workouts prioritized survival over improvement. Coaches occasionally served as a scout team in red jerseys. “You had to get really creative,” Nelson says. “We were in there a whole lot. I’m 34 years old and really haven’t played competitively in eight or nine years. I’m going to go out there and compete, but it’s still different.”
Now, there is optimism about a healthy complement of players that is shaped to Wojciechowski’s preferences. Most players are multi-positional talents, but perhaps more importantly, they are gym rats. “That’s exciting,” Wojciechowski says. “Because that’s who I was.” In the first week the team was on campus this summer, junior guard Duane Wilson walked into the practice gym—the main McGuire Center floor was being refurbished—and saw 10 players trying to elbow their way into time on the shooting gun to put up their prescribed 2,000 shots per week. Wilson snapped a photo and sent it to Wojciechowski with a message: Coach, we’re going to have to figure out scheduled times for people to come shoot.
“Last year, a few guys would get in the gym here and there,” says Wilson, the team’s leading returning scorer at 11.9 points per game. “Any time you come to the gym (now) you’ll see one of your teammates in here working. Even days when coach tells us he doesn’t want anybody in the gym, I see guys sneaking in here, just to get shots. I love it.”
Translating that energy into execution is another matter. This is a prime benefit of an overseas trip: The NCAA standard allows for two hours of supervised workouts per week, per player, in the off-season. Teams embarking on foreign tours, however, are permitted 10 days of practices. Instead of cramming basketball shorthand into those brief workouts, Marquette can bring the group together for as long as it wants. That, in turn, allows the coaches to install what they want. And that provides hours of practice footage to present to the players and help them improve. “You’re able to dig a lot deeper because of the foreign tour,” Wojciechowski says.
The Golden Eagles move fast through three practice sessions across two days. But most of the instruction involves the basics of responsibilities, game fundamentals and identity.
The Monday practice begins in part with players practicing catching the ball with two hands—a remedial task, but one aimed at reducing turnovers down the line. After freshman big man Matt Heldt misses a jumper, coaches remind guards of the need to retreat down the floor as soon as a shot goes up. In full-court transition defense, Wojciechowski exhorts his team: Point and talk, point and talk. Not surprisingly, when Wilson drives to the rim unimpeded on a break, Wojciechowski deems it “unacceptable” to the group.
No one is truly blistered for errors—one of the staff’s tenets is getting the team to move on to the next play—but mistakes lead to messages. Running a fast-break offense off a missed shot, freshman guard Traci Carter dribbles the ball off his foot. Wojciechowski whistles everything to a halt and sends the five players back to the other end. “Tuck in your shirts and tighten up,” Wojciechowski says. To Carter, he offers personalized tutoring, one point guard to another: The team cannot abide sloppiness against non-existent defense. “You have to lead our team,” Wojciechowski tells the first-year guard from Philadelphia.
On Tuesday, the zone defense is installed, work that would otherwise have waited until the fall. Guards learn who is responsible for the offensive player in the high post—the “nail,” in Marquette parlance. They’re told to lock in on the perimeter with man-to-man principles until they hear a command to move elsewhere. Wojciechowski tells defenders converging for a double-team that the ball-handler “has to feel your body, he has to feel your voice, he has to feel your arms.”
If there are concerns, they revolve around fundamentals. During a 1 p.m. meeting following Monday’s practice, coaches review film of the workout and note how players are opening up their defensive stances and letting drivers blow by. They lament help-side defenders stunting toward an offensive player without much effect. “We’re not stopping the ball,” Johnson interjects. They note, time and again, a disturbing lack of block-outs for defensive rebounds. You can hear the disappointment in Wojciechowski’s voice when he sees Ellenson sky in for an offensive putback after an otherwise solid defensive series. “You busted your ass, they got a fade-away three at the buzzer, and it’s all for nothing,” he says.
Still, the coaches like the competition level. They like that their players appear to be in good physical shape. The fundamental lapses, the poor positioning, the attention to detail—these can all be corrected. Due the Italy trip, time is on Marquette’s side.
“We haven’t had to coach energy and enthusiasm,” Wojciechowski tells his staff during the film session. “We’ve had to coach execution. If that’s the way it stays all year, we’ll be in good shape.”
There are other reasons to anticipate better results. Wilson can score; he was mercurial as a redshirt freshman, but he did touch 30 points once and 26 on two other occasions. Fischer worked through significant discomfort from the labrum tear while averaging 11.0 points in 24 games last year, and the junior declares he now feels “great,” which should give Marquette a nice anchor on the block. Cohen, a former top-100 recruit, languished on the bench as a 175-pound freshman but says he weighed in at 200 pounds recently. Newcomers like forward Sacar Anim demonstrate enough bounce to be answers to Marquette’s depth issues.
And then there is a 6’10” freshman from Rice Lake, Wis., a town of less than 9,000, who may be the most offensively polished first-year player in the United States. If there is someone more gifted than Henry Ellenson in this regard, it is not by much.
“A freak of nature,” Wilson calls him.
Marquette ranked 183rd nationally in offensive efficiency last season, per kenpom.com. It is not difficult to envision how Ellenson, a McDonald’s All-American and the program’s highest rated recruit since Doc Rivers arrived in 1980, could change that.
He has a fluid shooting stroke with range that extends beyond the three-point line. He already gets low and wide when battling for position on the blocks—not all freshmen necessarily grasp this early—and he has both the length to finish over defenders and the footwork and patience to shot-fake and find a clearer angle. Ellenson’s ball-handling is terrific for his size; he’ll help Marquette most with straight-line penetration, but one pities big men assigned to keep up with Ellenson’s dexterity on the wing.
"I wouldn’t say they need a ton from me, but what I do is a lot, if that makes sense,” says Ellenson, who averaged 27.4 points as a high school senior. “I like to play all over. I like to get the rebound and go, I like to pick and pop. That’s just my game. I feel I can help and contribute a lot.”
This evokes Wojciechowski’s favorite play when he watched Ellenson compete in high school: The five-star recruit snatching a defensive rebound and leading the fast break himself. It’s not the last team Wojciechowski has seen Ellenson’s athleticism.
There was Ellenson during a full-court scrimmage in Marquette’s gym, grabbing a board and turning to find a lane, then charging ahead, eluding one defender and thundering to the rim to get fouled in a crowd. As teammates hustled to help Ellenson up, the giddy coaching staff exchanged expectant glances and smiles.
When the sequence unfolds again on video later that afternoon, the film room is silent until Wojciechowski offers his assessment.
“Good coaching,” he deadpans.
“He has a star quality about him,” Wojciechowski later says of Ellenson. “You have to give a guy like that freedom. You don’t want to put him in a box, where your coaching is restricting who he can be. You have to allow him to explore the game. Because he’s got a chance of doing things with that freedom that you can’t coach.”
Ellenson and the 6’11” Fisher should present a problem for any team, as few opponents will be able to match that size. One solution will be to force one or both to the bench with foul trouble.
This dynamic is on the mind of the coaching staff on Tuesday afternoon as players shuffle in for film review, a 20-minute session before a practice open to donors and the media.
Wojciechowski alerts the group to juice bottles left by the strength staff—“It’s like drinking a vitamin,” he says—and then the clips unspool as the coach walks his players through three simple areas of improvement that he says will make Marquette, in theory, a better defensive team.
The Golden Eagles are “too wild” on close-outs, for one; at the front of the room Wojciechowski demonstrates how to jump back when a shooter makes a move, as opposed to opening up a defensive stance. Inferior block-outs are the second concern. “That’s my responsibility,” Wojciechowski says. “I haven’t emphasized it enough.”
But he’s most concerned with the third area—guard rotation and help defense.
“Who is usually in harm’s way when the defense breaks down?” Wojciechowski asks the group.
“Big man,” a few voices call out.
“We can’t put them in a position where, game after game, guys are driving into their chests,” Wojciechowski replies.
He then places responsibility on Fischer and Ellenson to play smart and to reject the urge to reject every shot—to “wall up” instead of rising up for a block. Marquette needs its big men to be on the floor for 30-plus minutes per game, preferably together. In the staff’s view, only a collective effort, from the guards on back, will ensure that.
It is one of the most critical messages for Marquette to grasp for 2015-16. The process of driving it home has begun in the thick of summer.
“You have to be working at all times,” Ellenson says. “You have to be in spots, you have to be thinking, you have to be on edge. If you’re lagging, everyone else is hurting. You have to be on your toes at all times.”
Though Wojciechowski spent four years playing for Mike Krzyzewski, and then another 15 serving as an assistant to the winningest coach in men’s college basketball history, he is not immune to introspection. Especially, perhaps, after going 13-19.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility in our program to constantly try to improve,” he says.
Last season was about survival. What follows is evolution. Marquette’s man-to-man defense won’t extend as much; the staff surmises a more compact philosophy suits the personnel. Likewise, the coaches will streamline what they emphasize offensively. To ward off another plague of injuries, there was off-season biomechanical testing to assess each players’ physical strengths and weaknesses. Players also wear Catapult GPS systems—picture a small monitor tucked into a vest—during practice to track their workloads.
In sum, it is an approach at once more comprehensive and more simplified going from Year 1 to Year 2.
“In a lot of respects, with the amount of newness we have, there’s a fresh start,” Wojciechowski says. “Which is exciting as a coach. You’re able to take from the experiences we had last year and use them, but also we’ve got so many new faces, the board is pretty clean, too.”
There is work to be done to fill in the blanks.
Before his team leaves the film room for the Tuesday afternoon practice, Wojciechowski urges them to complete “the sprint,” as he puts it, of two full workdays before a day off. There is energy as the Golden Eagles plunge immediately into drills focused on close-outs and wall-ups, but a young roster stumbles a bit to the finish line. During four-on-four play, the defense surrenders offensive rebounds on four straight possessions, despite the earlier mini-lecture about block-outs. In another sequence, two defenders fail to communicate and run to the same spot, leaving a shooter wide open.
“Goddangit!” Wojciechowski shouts. He sends the entire roster to the line for a sprint the length of the court and back.
There are highlights for sure—a terrific high-low pass from Fischer to Ellenson, a Wilson steal and dunk—but practice ends with a scrimmage in which a team mostly stocked with backups beats the presumptive starters by four. Wojciechowski gathers his team for a huddle and a straight assessment. They’ve had nine practices, he says. Eight times they answered the bell. When asked to do something more rigorous this time—a second practice in one day, on the main floor at the McGuire Center, before a small audience of donors and media—they let fatigue get the better of them.
With the overseas trip, Marquette is on an accelerated track this summer. It is a head start that may have some heads swimming at times. This was another lesson learned.
“It was tough,” Wojciechowski tells a group of reporters a few minutes later, “but you have to do tough things to win.”
He walks back to a mid-court huddle with his coaches, his jaw set, his frustration barely concealed by a blank stare. In less than a week, a flight to Italy awaits, with games to play on the other side. There is plenty to work on. But better now than later.