MILWAUKEE – Unsurprisingly, Steve Wojciechowski believes a basketball program is built on defense, energy and communication. The last part is maybe the most important. Good, direct communication can correct or preempt failings in the other areas. So at Marquette practices, in lulls or in moments of insidious quiet, the team’s first-year coach gets very direct: Get on the line.
The point guard barks out a call that is not repeated by every other player on the floor? Get on the line. The defense doesn’t talk about adjustments on the fly, or it sits idly by as the offense works the ball around? Get on the line. In the “Bulls” transition drill, if no one is shouting about who picks up the ball and who defends the rim and who accounts for trailers? On the line. Everybody. Those five guys don’t talk, the whole team pays, with a sprint the length of the floor and back. Then back to work.
“Nobody’s into it still?” senior guard Derrick Wilson says. “Get on the line.”
If nothing else, Wojciechowski has gotten the message across in the first six-plus months of his first head coaching job. The former Duke star and longtime Mike Krzyzewski assistant works with a roster that lost its top four scorers and top three rebounders from a 17-15 campaign. The only guy on the team who averaged double-digit scoring last season, guard Matt Carlino, did so for BYU. Wojciechowski has one player taller than 6-foot-7, and that player, 6-foot-11 Indiana transfer Luke Fischer, isn’t eligible to play until mid-December. The Big East coaches pegged Marquette to finish seventh out of 10 teams in preseason voting this week. Yet there is optimism. Because everyone seems to hear what Wojciechowski is saying.
Part of that is institutional habit: Basketball is the big deal at Marquette, which spent more than $10.7 million on it in 2012-13, and Wojciechowski’s suggestions for renovations to a locker room and practice facility were not viewed as extravagances. But it’s also holdover players accepting a new coach. It’s Wojciechowski landing commitment from a five-star recruit, forward Henry Ellenson, before he’s coached a game. “How would I describe his passion?” sophomore forward Deonte Burton says, repeating the question. “You know how he was on the court? It’s the exact same. It’s just like he’s playing still. He’s competing himself. When something happens, he feels the emotion we feel.”
That’s evident in the first moment you see Marquette’s coach on Monday: A door to a practice gym swinging open, Wojciechowski walking out in a sweat-soaked T-shirt, having just played the daily, full-court game to 120 points with his assistants and other staffers. His team lost at the buzzer. A 3:45 p.m. practice was still to come. These scenes are connected: The competitiveness in the pick-up run has to fuel the work done with the team later. While the big-picture hope is great, in the prism of just this season, there is a lot of that work to do.
“I’m an undefeated coach, so we’ll see how I feel in mid-January,” Wojciechowski says, sitting in his office a few minutes later, draining a water bottle between answers. “In terms of the school, in terms of the support we get here, the staff we have and the momentum we have, I feel really good about where we’re at. But I also am a realist. We’re not close to where we want to be.”
What a Steve Wojciechowski team will look like in the future, when he’s recruited to his system over multiple cycles and has time with top-flight talent like Ellenson, is to be determined. What it will look like this year: Smallish and aggressive, perhaps not unlike a certain former national defensive player of the year running the operation. “We have to overwhelm people with our pressure,” Wilson says. With Wilson returning, Carlino transferring in and former four-star recruit Duane Wilson (no relation to Derrick) coming off a redshirt season due to injury, there’s at least enough of a mix of talent and experience that it only makes sense to play off the backcourt and go from there. Add in swingmen like Burton and Juan Anderson, and the Golden Eagles can make opposing offenses uneasy. “We’ve tried to make defense our strength, so offense will come from our defense pressuring the ball, getting turnovers, making the other team speed up so they will become more uncomfortable,” Burton says.
The other end presents issues. Carlino averaged 13.7 points at BYU last season but shot just 38.5 percent. No one else has been a double-digit scorer. The practice plan for Monday included zone offense, because Wojciechowski is fairly sure opponents are smart enough to try that defensive approach. (Marquette’s returnees, not counting Carlino, collectively accounted for 28 three-pointers last season.) The Golden Eagles’ coach concedes it will take time to figure out an offensive identity, to suss out where the points come from and how they come, especially when Fischer drops in mid-December.
“For us to have any chance to be good this year, it’s going to be about who we are collectively more so than our individual parts,” Wojciechowski says. “Because our individual parts haven’t done it yet at a high level. I think they can. But the strength of our team needs to be the group. If we do that well, we have a chance to be good. If we think we’re going to conquer the mountain individually, we’re probably not going to be real good.”
He appears to be good at the togetherness thing. The renovations to the Al McGuire Center included an office for the head coach just off the players’ locker room that wasn’t there before. Wojciechowski wanted to be in the mix, and more significantly, he wanted his players to know he was in the mix. “I don’t want my guys to be scared of me,” he says. “I want to have a relationship with my guys, and that means telling them they’re good when sometimes they don’t think they are, and that means telling them they’re not so good when they think they are. In order to do that, it can’t just be office hours. Maybe you have an organic interaction that’s more meaningful than any meeting you can set up.”
Marquette’s players use words like “approachable” and “relatable” in describing their new coach. It may be natural for Wojciechowski to be this way, but it is also useful: His team is limited and it will scuffle at times this season. If the roster believes the coach is invested, it won’t fray at the stress points.
It took Carlino just one audience with Wojciechowski, for example, to get on board.
The 6-2 guard’s basketball path was well-known: Committing to Indiana, backing out to sign with UCLA, leaving the Bruins without playing a minute, then spending three seasons with BYU. In deciding on his final stop for a post-grad season, Carlino’s priority was a place where he wanted to play for the coach more than anything. When Wojciechowski arrived for a visit at Carlino’s home in Phoenix last spring, he said a lot that the player wanted to hear, but one thing that resonated in particular: He understood. He hadn’t experienced the basketball histrionics that Carlino had. But Wojciechowski said he felt for Carlino, and he understood. “It meant a lot to me,” Carlino says. “Really no one else said anything like that.”
Marquette had an early practice the next day. Carlino had other coaches set to visit. But by the time Wojciechowski was on his plane back to the Midwest that night, he had a text message from Carlino: I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else besides you, coach.
“He’s being himself, being genuine,” Carlino says. “I don’t know, maybe some coaches get burned after a while being genuine with guys. But that’s how he’s approached it so far and it’s been great.”
How far that takes Marquette this year is debatable, but it’s also somewhat beside the point. No matter the pedigree, this is still a 37-year-old, first-time head coach. Success will be measured over the longer term. The school’s abundant support offers a bit of a failsafe; that $10.7 million in basketball expenses outpaced the likes of Indiana and North Carolina in the same reporting period, per U.S. Dept. of Education data. That’s cushion for the stumbles of a fledgling coach.
But Wojciechowski could have said the wrong things. He could have hit the wrong notes with his new players. (Notwithstanding mercurial guard Todd Mayo leaving the program in July.) He could have lost a top -0 recruit to Michigan State or Kentucky and therefore lost a potential building block. (He also could have not calculatingly welcomed Ellenson’s older brother, Wally, as a transfer from Minnesota this year.) Instead, the message has come across clear to a lot of people who wanted to hear it or needed to hear it.
All that’s left is for Steve Wojciechowski to coach a college basketball game.
“This is a new thing for everyone, including our staff,” he says. “Everyone has a clean slate to pull together and make sure this group is as good as it possibly can be.”