MILWAUKEE — The Duke coaching tree is blossoming in the Midwest.Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski and Northwestern counterpart Chris Collins share a bond that dates back to their days at Duke as point guards and assistants under Mike Krzyzewski.Now the close friends are leading programs on the rise at schools separated by an 80-mile drive on Interstate 94.
Wojciechowski, in his third season at Marquette, is trying to take the school to its first NCAA Tournament since 2013. Collins, in his fourth year on the sideline, has his team close to its first NCAA tourney bid ever.
Imagine how proud Krzyzewski might be if the prized pupils make their first appearances in the tournament as head coaches in the same season.
“I feel like I live and die every game that (Collins coaches). So proud of him,” Wojciechowski said.
Collins says Wojciechowski is like a brother. Their wives are best friends. Heck, the couples even lived four houses apart when they coached together at Duke.
“We’ve been through so much together. In this profession, being a head coach, there (are) not a lot of people that understand what you go through on a daily basis. He and I both do,” Collins said.
They talk on the phone several times a week, exchanging ideas over how to run a play or how to handle the grind of the long season. Often, they’re simply checking in with each other to see how things are going.
“We’re both kind of at similar” points, Collins said. “We’re both in the building stages and it’s been great for me and hopefully for him, too, to have someone you trust, that you can really lean on and help you through different times.”
They’ve had some good talks this season.
Northwestern (21-10, 10-8 Big Ten) has set a program record for wins. With a sixth-place finish in the league, the team appears to be in good shape to finally make the NCAAs, though at least one more win in the Big Ten Tournament would give the Wildcats more secure footing on the bubble. They open the conference tourney on Thursday against either Ohio State or Rutgers.
Northwestern lost six of its last nine games , but one of the wins during that season-ending stretch came at then-No. 7 Wisconsin on Feb. 12. Two months earlier, Wojciechowski had a look at Wisconsin, when the Badgers beat Marquette 93-84 in the annual in-state rivalry game.
Wojciechowski offered Collins some tips, right?
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” Wojciechowski said with a smile.
The Golden Eagles (19-11, 10-8 Big East) open their conference tournament on Thursday as the fourth seed against Seton Hall. They boast a win over then-No. 1 Villanova on their resume, though like Northwestern, they could use at least one more victory to feel better about their chances on Selection Sunday.
The steel-jawed Wojciechowski still looks like he could suit up with the way he paces the sideline with energy. In front of reporters, he speaks with the reserved tones of a CEO giving a boardroom presentation. It’s a style that might remind some basketball observers of Krzyzewski.
“I think at the end of the day, too, none of us are going to be viewed as successful if we’re going to be judged by the standards of Coach K,” Collins said.
The Duke pedigree can also come with certain perceptions. Collins said he always thought the notion that former Duke assistants do not make great head coaches was unfair.
“If that stigma was out there, I couldn’t answer that. All I knew was that I was getting great tutelage from Coach K,” Collins said. “I was putting myself in a position when I did get an opportunity to go somewhere that fit me to try to have some success.”
Wojciechowski alluded to a bunker mentality that helped forge a tight friendship with Collins.
“There’s a little bit of the ‘Duke thing’ where people … at times it’s harder to network with people that maybe just aren’t as open to that,” Wojciechowski said. “And so we stick together and trust each other. We’ve been in a foxhole together, so we know that guy has your back.”
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Evanston, Illinois, contributed to this story.