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'On the shoulders of giants,' Marquette's Steve Wojciechowski navigates Big East

'On the shoulders of giants,' Marquette's Steve Wojciechowski navigates Big East

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Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski reacts to a call against his team in an 83-64 loss against Murray State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at XL Center in Hartford, Conn., on March 21, 2019.

Marquette head coach Steve Wojciechowski reacts to a call against his team in an 83-64 loss against Murray State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at XL Center in Hartford, Conn., on March 21, 2019. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant/TNS)

HARTFORD, Conn. - Marquette was a brand name in college men's basketball long before it joined the Big East, long, in fact, before there was a Big East.

Tex Winter, one of the developers of the famed triangle offense, coached Marquette in the early 1950s, followed through the decades by fellow Hall-of-Famers Eddie Hickey, Al McGuire, who led Butch Lee, Bo Ellis and company to the 1977 NCAA championship, and Rick Majerus.

"Marquette is a tradition-rich program and we're very fortunate," said Steve Wojciechowski, current coach of the Golden Eagles, "and I'm very fortunate as a care-taker of the program to stand on the shoulders of giants, whether its the great players who have played here or the great coaches that have coached here. We want to carry on the tradition of toughness, of competitiveness and of selflessness that has been displayed throughout the decades by the guys that have worn the Marquette jersey."

Marquette, independent from 1916-1989, played in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, the Great Midwest and Conference-USA before joining the Big East in 2005, one of the late-comers to the original conference which was by then losing its football-playing schools. Under Tom Crean and Buzz Williams, Marquette was an immediate, and perennial contender, winning the Big East's regular-season title in 2013, and five of eight games against UConn before the conference split after that season.

Marquette has appeared in 33 NCAA Tournaments, reaching the Sweet 16 some 16 times, the Final Four three times, most recently in 2003. Maurice Lucas, Doc Rivers, Dwayne Wade and Jimmy Butler are among the long list of illustrious alums, a group of which just won The Basketball Tournament and took its $1 million prize.

Wojciechowski, 43, a player and long-time assistant under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, took over at Marquette in 2014 and is 115-81, with two trips to the NCAA Tournament. He added former UConn assistant Dwayne Killings to his staff in 2018. During his time, Wojciechowski coached another of those Marquette "giants," guard Markus Howard, who averaged 21.6 points across four seasons, shooting over 40% - on 3-pointers and overall - consistently. To continue the Eagles' winning tradition, Wojciechowski will have to define life after him.

Connecticut fans got a glimpse when Howard scored 26 in the NCAA Tournament game at the XL Center on March 21, 2019, but lost his duel to Murray State's Ja Morant, who had a triple-double. Howard was averaging 27.8 points as a senior before the coronavirus ended Marquette's season at 18-12, 8-10 in the Big East.

"As a program and as a staff we've wrapped our heads around the fact that we're losing one of the great players that has ever worn a Marquette jersey," Wojciechowski said. "Obviously, when you lose someone of that magnitude, somebody who had the ability to score the ball like Markus, that's not going to be replaced by one guy. I would anticipate, offensively, we'll be a much more balanced unit, which can have some real positive ramifications."

Marquette will go into next season, whenever it is safe to start, with seniors Koby McEwen and Theo John, redshirt junior Greg Elliott, junior Jamal Cain and sophomores Symir Torrence and D.J. Carton, a transfer from Ohio State. Top-40 recruit Dawson Garcia, 6-foot-11, headlines a highly touted incoming class, which includes Oso Ighodaro, Justin Lewis and redshirt freshman Dexter Akanno. Jose Perez, who played at Putnam Science Academy and Gardner-Webb, is transferred to Marquette in May.

"We have some experienced guys that have been through the Big East battles and are time tested," Wojciechowski said, "and we have newcomers that not only add to our level of talent but complement the guys who were in our program prior. So a really good mix of experience and new guys that we feel can be an outstanding team."

When Wojciechowski finished playing at Duke in 1998, he was in the top 10 in school history in steals and assists, and his teams were 87-44. He was playing professionally in Poland in 1999, when UConn beat Duke in the championship game, then returned as an assistant and helped win championships in 2001 and 2010.

"There's not a better mentor to learn from than Coach K," Wojciechowski said. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't draw on some of the lessons that he taught me, or displayed while I was working for him, or playing for him. Certainly, we wanted to have a culture where our guys feel like they're cared for and challenged every day, both on and off he court, to develop and maximize their potential in every way. That's something we try to do at Marquette as well."

Though not an original member of the Big East, Marquette fit right in with its basketball-centric schools when the new conference was formed. They average more than 15,000 fans per game at the Fiserv Forum in downtown Milwaukee, another of those environments, above-average on the hostility meter, that will be awaiting the Huskies when the ride begins

"We all know the tradition that UConn men's basketball has, Wojciechowski said, "and we know Danny Hurley is an outstanding coach and we were bringing another great program, a tradition-rich program into our conference which would only help. We've been one of the best conferences in the country year after year and I think UConn only strengthens that as we move forward.

"The Big East is a basketball conference and the kids we recruit identify with the programs and the investment and resources that each respective school pours into its men's basketball program. So we can give them an elite level of basketball experience, not just in the individual programs, but competitively across the conference. We are all committed to being basketball-first schools, and that has attracted some of the best basketball players in the United States to our league, and some of the best coaches in the United States. That recipe has produced incredible results year after year."

Visit The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.) at www.courant.com

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