On the eve of their respective team’s participation in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, Mike Krzyzewski spelled out the bond he possesses with Steve Wojciechowski as being about family.
“Heck, it’s probably 19, 20 years,” Krzyzewski said of Wojciechowski’s two decades of apprenticeship under the legendary coach, first as a player, then as an assistant coach. “Are you kidding me? Besides that, he’s Polish. So we share an even greater bond.”
Despite their deep ties, do not expect to see a carbon copy of Duke when Wojciechowski’s Marquette team takes the court Friday night at 9:50 p.m. at the Bons Secours Wellness Arena in the Greenville Regional.
“I don’t think he’s trying to be Coach K at Marquette,” said Bill Scholl, Marquette’s athletic director. “I think he’s trying to be Coach Wojciechowski at Marquette.”
That is most noticeable in the differing styles of play between the two teams. Duke’s cornerstone to championships has been sticky man-to-man defense and an ability to exploit one-on-one matchups on offense. Marquette features the nation’s leading 3-point shooting team and a balanced attack that counts five players who average scoring in double figures.
“What Steve has done is taken the talent that he has and meshed it into a style that can beat you, instead of trying to fit guys into another style that wouldn’t be as successful,” Krzyzewski said.
Part of that was out of necessity for Wojciechowski, who inherited a team three seasons ago that was thin on scholarship players. Marquette was down to six such players by a late-season conference game against Villanova, and the end result was the Golden Eagles’ first losing season (13-19 record) since 1998-99.
A season ago, when Marquette ran off a nine-game win streak in December, Scholl had seen enough to know that Wojciechowski was the right guy to lead the program. Scholl surprised even the Marquette faithful by extending Wojciechowski’s contract two years through the 2021-22 season.
That move might sound familiar to Duke fans, even though it occurred under entirely dissimilar circumstances.
Krzyzewski, you might recall, was in his fourth season at Duke when Tom Butters, then the athletic director, made the bold move to give his young coach a five-year contract extension early in the 1983-84 season. At the time, Krzyzewski was coming off back-to-back, 17-loss seasons and the Blue Devils had suffered a humiliating 43-point loss to Virginia in the opening round of the 1983 ACC tournament.
The difference is that Duke alums and fans were calling for Krzyzewski’s head at the time of Butters’ decision. Scholl’s bigger concern with Wojciechowski was that another program might swoop in and swipe him away from Marquette.
“We were already starting to get beat up in the recruiting wars about how long we would be able to keep him,” Scholl said. “Believe it or not, a year and a half in, some of that was already being used out there.”
We know the rest of Krzyzewski’s hall of fame story. Wojciechowski, at age 40, is just beginning to write his own.
Wojciechowski said where he most wants his program to be like Krzyzewski’s is in terms of pursuing excellence on and off the court, the family-like relationships built within the team and the student-athlete experiences at the university.
All of that is enhanced by winning, which Marquette is just beginning to do under Wojciechowski. The Golden Eagles rode the play of Henry Ellenson, the Big East Conference freshman of the year and an NBA first-round pick, to a 20-13 record a season ago. This season, they counted wins over Villanova, Xavier (twice) and Creighton en route to a 19-12 record that drew an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
We could be witnessing the beginning of Wojciechowski’s climb in the coaching ranks.
“To say he will be where coach K is, I don’t know there is that coach who will ever come along again,” Scholl said. “It’s probably John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski. But I think he has a chance to go down as one of the greats, absolutely.”
If he does, it will be more because Wojciechowski put his own stamp on a Marquette program rather than solely emulating Krzyzewski’s Duke program.
“Obviously, I learned a lot from Coach in my time at Duke,” Wojciechowski said, “but I think everybody’s got to be their own person and make their own decisions.”