<
>

A tree grows in Milwaukee

11/10/2014

Steve Wojciechowski might be the hardest name to spell in college basketball — even harder than that of his former coach and longtime mentor, Mike Krzyzewski.

Of course, Krzyzewski’s brilliance on the college and USA Men’s Basketball levels has allowed sports writers enough practice spelling his name that use of the nickname, “Coach K.” became more for color than necessity.

Whether or not having to spell Wojciechowski will become as common, and thus as easy, as spelling his mentor’s name has yet to be determined, but the 37-year-old takes the first step in that direction in a little less than a week, when he leads his Marquette Golden Eagles onto the floor of the BMO Harris Bradley Center to take on Tennessee-Martin. Two weeks after that, he’ll take his team to Walt Disney World, near Orlando, Fla., to participate in the Orlando Classic, where they will open against Georgia Tech on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27 (tipoff is at 8:30 p.m. ET; the game will be televised live on ESPN2) and could then go head to head with Michigan State and Tom Izzo.

Disney World for Thanksgiving is nice, but “Wojo” envisions a greater trip later in the year, a spring soiree in Indianapolis at the Lucas Oil Stadium for the Final Four.

It’s a trip he knows well, and one the Eagles nearly experienced two years ago. But that’s history.

One of the most stubborn leaves to ever to fall off the Krzyzewski coaching tree, Wojciechowski finally dropped off after 13 years as an assistant, landing in Milwaukee. He might be the next to learn just how difficult life can be away from Durham, N.C. Of the 13 previous Coach K. disciples, only six were over .500 in their first season — Mike Brey at Delaware, Jeff Capel at VCU, Johnny Dawkins at Stanford, Mike Dement at Cornell, Quin Snyder at Missouri and David Henderson, also at Delaware (Tommy Amaker got Seton Hall to .500).

Only three improved their teams from the previous season — Amaker’s Pirates went 15-15 overall and 9-9 in their conference from 10-18, 5-13; Brey’s Blue Hens went 15-12, 11-7 from 12-15, 7-9; and Dement’s Big Red improved to 15-11, 9-5 from 14-12, 9-5.

Of course, a bad first season doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road, as Amaker succeeded at Michigan and is having success at Harvard, while Capel had six straight winning seasons at VCU and Oklahoma (he is now back as an assistant at Duke), and Snyder is head coach of the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Even Krzyzewski had a losing first season at Army and lost two of his first three seasons at Duke.

In fact, given time, most got better – although not right away. Nine of the 12 took another step back in Year Two, but by Year Three, Snyder, Dement, Brey and Amaker all proved themselves and proved long-term winners, while Dawkins put together three 20-win seasons.

Marquette is two years removed from reaching the Elite Eight, but this team is light years from that group or even last year’s, which went 17-15, 9-9 and, for the first time since 2004, did not qualify for postseason play. With five of 2013-14’s top six scorers gone, it’s going to be an uphill climb for the Eagles, and one that should earn Wojciehowki a grace period of at least one full recruiting cycle.

That grace period need not be long, however, if he can transfer to his Golden Eagles the fiery nature, tenacity and smarts he showed as a player — remember, he also knows how to lose, having played on the last Duke team to have a losing record.

Who knows? Maybe someday Wojciechowski will go from spell-check nightmare to household name, just like Krzyzewski.