LAS VEGAS – He has maintained his cherubic face and boyish enthusiasm, but Steve Wojciechowski is all grown up. Not that people have noticed. Wojciechowski could win multiple national championships as a college basketball coach, yet hardcore fans of a certain age will forever think of him as the feisty, floor-slapping Blue Devil who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 1997-98 college basketball preview issue. “I’m only 37, but people forget I started coaching at 22,” Wojciechowski told me during a break at the LeBron James Skills Academy here last month. “So I’ve been in it for 15 years.”
Those years were spent sitting on the bench as an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski. During that time, Wojciechowki had several opportunities to leave for head coaching jobs, but he loved what he was doing and where he was doing it, so he stayed put. However, when he heard in March that Buzz Williams was leaving for Virginia Tech, Wojciechowski enthusiastically pursued the vacancy at Marquette. He was not considered a favorite until he interviewed with the school’s search committee. Once he convinced the committee that his passion for the game matched theirs, they gave him the job.
Why did Wojciechowski pursue Marquette? First and foremost, it is an excellent academic school, much like Duke. He knew he would be comfortable operating in that type of environment. Also, basketball is extremely important there – to the fans, the administrators and, most of all, to the alumni and boosters. Wojciechowski was especially enticed by the idea of living in Milwaukee, a town whose size, spirit and culture reminded him of his native Baltimore. Two days before the start of July recruiting, Wojciechowski threw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers game. Even though his toss was only slightly better than Baba Booey’s – the ball sailed over the catcher’s head – the crowd cheered. “It’s a beer-and-blue jeans kind of town,” he said. “It just really fits my style.”
Of course, it will take more than beer and blue jeans to make Wojciechowski the toast of Milwaukee. It will also take a lot of wins. Unfortunately, that might not happen for a while. This program is on shaky footing, which is largely why Williams left for Blacksburg. Last season, the Golden Eagles finished sixth in the Big East with a 9-9 record (17-15 overall) and failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine years. Since last season ended, the program has lost four seniors who either started or played starters’ minutes: 6-foot-7 forward Jamal Wilson, 6-8 forward Davante Gardner, 6-11 center Chris Otule and 6-3 guard Jake Thomas. Then, three weeks after we visited in Vegas, Wojciechowski lost another projected starter when Todd Mayo, a 6-4 senior guard who is O.J. Mayo’s younger brother, announced he was leaving to pursue a professional career. That means five of last season’s top six scorers are gone. Welcome to head coaching, kid.
The task of replenishing those losses was made more difficult when two of the school’s recruits were released from their commitments so they could follow Williams to Virgina Tech, while a third backed out and signed with Kansas State. Needless to say, Wojciechowski has a sober understanding of what he is facing in Year 1. “Some people will have us predicted to finish ninth out of 10 teams [in the Big East], which is fair. It’s a rebuild,” he said. And yet, there is much to be said for entering your first season as a head coach with diminished expectations. If the Golden Eagles play hard, hang together and win a few games, they will be considered a success, even if they don’t make the NCAA tournament.
Personnel-wise, Wojciechowski’s best move was landing Matt Carlino, a 6-2 shooting guard who transferred from BYU. Since Carlino, who averaged nearly 14 points per game last season, earned his undergraduate degree, he is eligible to compete right away. Another addition is center Luke Fischer, a 6-11 sophomore transfer from Indiana who will become eligible in December. Many coaches in Wojciechowski’s situation would have tried to grab a bunch of high school seniors in an effort to fill out a roster, but he chose not to go that route. “I don’t want to bring guys in who I don’t see as being part of a long-term solution,” Wojciechowski said. “I’m not looking for Band-Aids. I want guys who will fit the program. We’ll play with the guys we have and we’ll see what we’re made of.”
With the loss of Mayo, the lone experienced returnee is Deonte Burton. The 6-4 swingman, who is strong and built low to the ground, averaged 7 points in 13 minutes as a freshman, but Wojciechowski needs him to take a drastic step forward. “He has all the tools to be an all-Big East player, but he needs better consistency and effort,” Wojciechowski said. “He’s got to develop good habits.” The Golden Eagles will also benefit from the return of Duane Wilson, a highly touted redshirt freshman from Milwaukee who missed all of last season because of a leg injury.
Wojciechowski has two transfers who will sit out before becoming eligible for the 2015-16 season: Gabe Levin, a 6-7 sophomore who transferred from Loyola Marymount, and Wally Ellenson, a 6-6 guard who came from Minnesota. Ellenson was a huge get, not just because of his own talent but because his younger brother Henry, a 6-10 forward from Rice Lake, Wis., is a consensus top-25 recruit in the Class of 2015. Ellenson averaged 8.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in just 12 minutes while playing for the USA Basketball squad that just captured the gold medal at the Under-17 championships in Dubai. He’s big, he’s skilled – and he’s local. He is exactly the kind of breakthrough recruit who could jumpstart a moribund program.
Wojciechowski watched some video of last year’s games to prepare for next season, but that had limited value since most of the key players are gone. He has done most of his coaching this summer in small groups, where the real work isn’t skill development but relationship building. Those relationships will be tested during a brutal nonconference schedule that includes games at Ohio State, at home against Wisconsin and Arizona State and an appearance in the Orlando Classic, where the field includes Kansas, Michigan State and Tennessee.
Landing Ellenson is pivotal, but Wojciechowski has done well to lock up verbal commitments from two of the top high school seniors in Wisconsin: 6-2 point guard Nick Noskowiak and Matt Heldt, a 6-10 center. “We can recruit nationally, but we need to have a base in the Midwest,” he said. “Fortunately, there are a lot of players there.”
So yes, Marquette will probably lose its share of games next season. You might think that will be hard on Wojciechowski because he came from a championship-level program, but he reminded me that when he was a freshman at Duke in 1994-95, the Blue Devils won just two ACC games because Krzyzewski missed most of the season while recovering from back surgery. “We went 31-31 my first two years,” he said. “For us to make the NCAA tournament my sophomore year was incredible.”
Thus, the territory he now travels is not as unfamiliar as it may seem. For Marquette and its rookie head coach, the season will present an opportunity for a fresh start, as well as a new attitude. In case you haven’t noticed, Steve Wojciechowski is not a boy anymore. He wants his guys to man up. “There’s some uncertainty and not a lot of proven commodities, but if the players and staff embrace it the right way, it can really be an important year in the history of the program,” Wojciechowski said. “Our fan base and our program have a lot of pride. They tend to remember things. Our players have a chance to be remembered.”