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New set of challenges for Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski

BY DAN McGRATH

Special to the Sun-Times

MILWAUKEE — Over the course of 72 hours last week, Steve Wojciechowski realized how far he has become removed from Duke University.

Wojciechowski, 38, spent half his life as a Dookie, four years as a point guard in the late 1990s and the next 15 as a trusted aide to Mike Krzyzewski, the man, the myth, the Coach K Legend, under whom Duke has become the gold standard in college basketball. The Blue Devils compiled an .829 winning percentage, made 15 NCAA tournament appearances and won two national championships with Wojciechowski sitting alongside his mentor. They also shared a bench for two Olympic gold-medal campaigns.

That background made “Wojo” an appealing target for Marquette last spring when Buzz Williams inexplicably upped and left for Virginia Tech after six seasons, five of which featured NCAA tournament trips. While Williams promoted the misleading image of a guileless country bumpkin, Wojciechowski’s four-syllable, 13-letter surname could help with acceptance in a city boasting a substantial Polish population.

On Wednesday night, Wojciechowski was a television spectator as Duke put on a clinic in an 80-70 dismantling of second-ranked Wisconsin in the Big Ten-ACC challenge at Madison.

“I talked to Coach K the next morning,” he recalled, “and for 20 minutes, all he did was rave about how good Wisconsin was. That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear.”

The Badgers, a Final Four team last season with size, skill and savvy at every position, figured to be irked by the Duke slap-around and ready to take it out on whomever they faced next. That would be Marquette, which hardly came at them with a Duke-caliber roster — nine scholarship players, none taller than 6-7.

The result was a 49-38 smothering Saturday at the Bradley Center, where 18,573 fans were left wondering if they had wandered into a mud-wrestling competition by mistake.

“I love playing in these kinds of games,” coach Bo Ryan insisted after his Big Ten-favored Badgers improved to 8-1. “They give our guys a chance to work on things. There’s some things we could have done better, but it’s OK.”

Marquette (4-4) disrupted Wisconsin’s fabled “swing” offense with a variety of active, imaginative zones, holding the Badgers 26 points below their per-game scoring average and limiting them to 33 percent shooting. Josh Gasser (12 points) shot 4-for-8 on three-pointers, but Wisconsin’s other long-range shooters put up bricklayer numbers — 4-for-22.

“They really packed the zone and tried to keep the ball out of Frank’s hands, which was smart,” Gasser said.

“Frank” would be Frank Kaminsky, the Badgers’ big man, a Benet Academy graduate whose workmanlike afternoon produced 15 points, 10 rebounds, four steals and three blocks. Maybe not Player of the Year stuff, but plenty efficient.

The Badgers have managers taller than the Golden Eagles’ big men, but the 7-foot Kaminsky was largely responsible for their 38-26 domination of the boards — including 14-5 on the offensive glass — and shot-altering intimidation that factored into Marquette’s 28.9 percent shooting.

A lack of firepower is a concern for the Golden Eagles — they endured a seven-minute dry spell in the first half, and managed only five points in the final 8:57 after Sandy Cohen’s two free throws cut Wisconsin’s lead to 35-33.

Matt Carlino‘s game-high 18 points came on 6-for-11 shooting. His teammates were a combined 7-for-34.

“We have to get better offensively so we can score against a good defensive team like Wisconsin,” Wojciechowski said.

No kidding.

Wojciechowski hardly inherited a stacked roster, and three recruits reneged on commitments after Williams made his head-scratching move to an ACC bottom-feeder. If the scouting services are to be believed, Wojciechowski has a national-caliber class of recruits coming in, but that’s for next year. For now he’ll play the hand he was dealt.

He has made a good early impression with his relentlessly positive outlook, in marked contrast to Williams, who could be cranky when things didn’t go his way. And there’s that Duke stuff.

“I’d like to think the great players I’ve been around and the success we had at Duke and in the Olympics give me some credibility,” Wojciechowski said, “but it’s more important that these guys know I’m fully invested in their success.”

For now, Wisconsin rules the state they share, but that’s subject to change.

“I remember this young man as a player, and I’ve always admired him,” Ryan said. “If they get some size in here, they’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

Luke Fischer, a 6-11 transfer student from Indiana, is eligible next week. It’s a start.