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The Case Against Steve Wojciechowski

For the first time over a decade of existence, Cracked Sidewalks, Paint Touches, and Anonymous Eagle have united to create and publish a post concurrently. We have seen enough. 

Marquette men’s basketball head coach Steve Wojciechowski Ryan Messier/Paint Touches

It’s not criticism. It’s just facts.

This article serves as a consensus among the three longest-standing Marquette blogs regarding Steve Wojciechowski as Marquette University’s head men’s basketball coach.

Wojciechowski has proven incapable of succeeding as Marquette’s head men’s basketball coach. There is nothing in his record or the underlying statistics to indicate that he will be able to meet or exceed the expectations commonly associated with success at Marquette. There is ample evidence to indicate that, while he may be able to recruit talent to Marquette, he will continue to underachieve. The Wojo tax is real; the sum is less than the parts.

When reached for comment, Marquette Athletic Director Bill Scholl noted, “We aren’t satisfied with how the season played out. It was a difficult year, particularly with the inconsistency more than anything. But our coaches and staff are working every day to solve the issues and get better.”

The issue, however, is not a one year blip. It’s a consistent pattern of underperformance.

The Record

With this season complete, Wojciechowski is the first coach to lead Marquette to multiple losing seasons since Bob Dukiet, and joins Dukiet as one of the only two men to notch that feat since the 1950s. His winning percentage of 0.574 is also the worst since Dukiet and the worst by any non-Dukiet head coach since the 1960s.

Let’s look to March, because over the long term, Division 1 college basketball coaches are measured by their success in March. After seven years with Wojciechowski as head coach, Marquette has zero NCAA wins, and just two official NCAA appearances (though the team was projected to earn #9 seed in the COVID-19 ended 2020 tournament). Both of those invites resulted in convincing double-digit losses. In fact, on June 14th, 2021, Marquette will reach the ignominious milestone of 3,000 days since its last NCAA victory, the second-longest drought in modern program history.

If you want to call March nothing but a crapshoot, his head coaching record is even more disappointing in Big East play. Marquette has only finished in the top half of the Big East twice under Wojciechowski. The program’s average finish is just 6th.

This season the team once again underachieved by finishing 9th after being picked 6th in the pre-season by Big East coaches. We are forced to say “once again” here because that’s just the facts of the matter. During Wojciechowski’s tenure, only Georgetown has underperformed preseason expectations more regularly than Marquette. MU has exceeded expectations only once in the last seven seasons while underperforming four times.

And if preseason coaches polls aren’t convincing, data gives us an algorithmic measure of what the Golden Eagles have accomplished. The data notes that Marquette has only exceeded their preseason expectations once in seven seasons of Steve Wojciechowski’s guidance, and it’s not even the season you think it is.

This isn’t a case of mercurial fan perceptions demanding that this head coach pick up right where Buzz Williams left off (he didn’t, actually) with three straight Sweet 16s. This is an analytical, statistical-based evaluation which reveals that Marquette’s end of season performance is about 14 spots worse than what unbiased pre-season models projected, based on the talent retained and brought in.

The fact of the matter is that Marquette has enjoyed just one high-quality season during the last seven years. That season ended in disaster, with the team losing six of seven down the stretch and missing out on multiple chances to win the Big East title. This happened in large part or perhaps almost exclusively because Wojciechowski refused to alter rotations or at least change the game plan with his clearly injured star guard playing subpar basketball. Moreover, during each of the last three seasons, MU endured a skid of six losses in seven games during the latter half of the conference season. One could easily argue that each successive skid was exponentially worse than the one before it, as one would have hoped that the head coach learned something about what he was doing during the previous one.

Regular season struggles might be easier to take if Marquette were having Big East Tournament success, but that too has also been an exercise in failure. Marquette’s record in the Big East Tournament is 4-6. While that might seem just slightly below average, three of those four wins came in the Wednesday first round games. When Marquette has reached the quarterfinals and (only once!) beyond, they are just 1-5.

At this point in his tenure as head coach, Wojciechowski has cycled through two complete senior classes, welcomed his fair share of highly regarded recruits and transfers, enjoyed substantial program resources, and coached during a generally average era for the Big East. Despite that there is little evidence to suggest that he has the ability to deliver results commensurate with Marquette’s basketball heritage. In fact, the evidence — seven seasons of facts, not criticism — clearly points out that he will not breakthrough in the role.

The Stats

When we look deeper into the statistical trends of the Steve Wojciechowski era, it demonstrates exactly why his winning percentage is the worst of any Marquette coach not named Dukiet during the past 57 seasons.

He can coach a Markus Howard offense, but not a defense of any kind. During the current era, MU has three top 20 offenses and one top 35 offense. All four of those coincide with the tenure of the best scorer in program history.

Yet there’s not even a guarantee that Wojciechowski can coach an offense that doesn’t involve a generational shooting and scoring talent. With Howard graduated, Marquette dove to an offensive KenPom rank of 87 in the 2020-21 season. The average offensive KenPom rank during the last seven years is just 60th in the country, nowhere near what is required to regularly compete for postseason appearances and conference titles.

Defensively, Marquette’s best defensive KenPom finish is a rank of 45. That figure is an outlier as the second best is a defensive rank of 69, and it only gets worse from there. Over seven years, MU’s average KenPom defensive rank is 100, far below the level needed to be a consistent, high-performing program in a major conference.

The conference-only numbers are even worse. According to KenPom, Marquette has finished in the bottom half of the Big East defensively in six of the past seven seasons, and twice were the worst (including 2020-2021). On average during the era, MU ranks in the bottom quartile defensively.

The Four Factors (click the link and read if you’re not familiar) demonstrates the program’s struggle to perform at a high level. Wojciechowski teams do well on offensive effective field goal percentage (eFG%), but nothing else that helps contribute to winning basketball games. MU is consistently a bottom half of the conference team when it comes to keeping the ball long enough to shoot it and grabbing a second chance opportunity.

Defensively, MU is a bottom half of the Big East team in every single category, nearly every single season. As noted, this season MU was once again the worst defensive team in the league. MU’s era-long struggles defensively have been chronicled for years and years and years.

This is a repeated pattern of underperformance in critical aspects of the game, unrelated to wins or losses.

The Coaching - the sum is less than the parts

What makes Steve Wojciechowski an ineffective coach?

Under his guidance, Marquette rarely improves as the season goes on. In the table below, we’ve shared MU’s winning percentage by month for each of the past seven seasons. When conference play begins, MU is essentially a .500 team, they get worse from there in February, and are consistently playing some of their worst basketball of the year in March.

It’s worth noting that maybe this is actually not Marquette getting worse. After all, Marquette traditionally has a load of buy games in November and December to stack up wins and thus boost winning percentage. However, based on the decline to a sub-.500 winning percentage in February and March, opposing coaches may be learning how to adjust to what the Golden Eagles are doing on both ends of the court. In the first game of a conference matchup, Wojciechowski’s teams have gone 32-32. In the return game in the Big East’s double round-robin system? MU underperforms with a record of 25-36 (41%).

Wojciechowski’s system doesn’t respect the value of a possession on either end of the court. In a hallmark of the era, his teams are sloppy with the ball on offense and do not force enough turnovers on defense. Marquette only posted two seasons in the KenPom top-100 for offensive turnover rate, 2017 and 2018. Coincidentally, those were the program’s two most efficient offenses during his tenure. In league play, Marquette has only finished ranked in the top-half of Big East teams in offensive turnover percentage once, when they were 4th in the league in 2017.

Defensively, while Marquette has never been average at forcing turnovers, the past three seasons everything has focused on protecting the paint at all costs. Under Wojciechowski, Marquette has posted the three worst defensive turnover rates in program history according to KenPom (going back to 1997), indicating a commitment to a defensive strategy that yields consistently poor outcomes. Turnovers are about 20% of defense, and deliberately eschewing turnovers is roughly equivalent to trying to create a defense that is capped at 80% maximum efficiency. The result is the consistently below average defenses we have seen from a head coach that was named National Defensive Player of the Year in 1998.

This is not about talent. When the Hauser brothers left, the one “saving grace” discussed was that replacing them with quicker, more athletic defenders would bolster the defense and jump start transition opportunities. Instead, both the turnover rate and defense as a whole took a step back.

When Markus Howard graduated, many said the saving grace would be the chance to really improve defensively because Marquette would accidentally have a larger defender on the floor in Howard’s place. Instead, both the turnover rate and the defense nosedived with Howard gone. The issue has never been Andrew Rowsey or Sam Hauser or Joey Hauser or Markus or any one player. It’s the scheme and the coach.

Inefficient Lineups

And speaking of Rowsey, 2018 was a glaring warning sign. Marquette boasted one of, if not the, most potent backcourt combinations in the country with Markus and Andrew. Both shot over 40% from 3 on massive usage, combining to shoot 576 3’s on the season. Of course, two small, weak defenders made for one of the worst backcourt defensive duos in the country. Quite the dilemma and one identified by regular fans throughout the season.

Instead of working out rotations to split up the tandem as much as possible to ensure max minutes individually with minimal floor time together, the final decision was to load up on the duo and try to just outscore the opposition. That worked…. all the way to the quarterfinals of the NIT.

After Rowsey graduated, Marquette needed another ball-handler. In addition, it was obvious that a defense that had regressed every year in turnover percentage, from #59 nationally in 2015 to #197 in 2018, needed someone that could get stops and create turnovers. Enter Joseph Chartouny, a senior transfer from Fordham who ranked in the top-100 of Assist Rate all three years on Rose Hill, had just posted a career-best 16.8% turnover rate (on par with Rowsey’s 16.4 in 2017-18), and was ranked in the TOP TWO NATIONALLY in steal rate each of the previous two seasons.

Chartouny was the perfect fit to create for Marquette’s shooters while energizing the defense. Instead, Chartouny experienced career worsts in Assist Rate, Offensive Turnover Rate, and Steal Percentage. This was either a gross misevaluation on the part of the staff in terms of Chartouny’s ability to contribute at the Big East level or a misuse of a player’s skillset. Either way, it raises the question of what the point was of bringing him in to Marquette.

This tendency to cut back on steals was not exclusive to Chartouny.

Four-year Marquette players like Cain and Howard consistently saw their steal percentage decline in Wojciechowski’s system, almost as if they slowly had it drummed into their head that they should never ever attempt to steal the ball. Players that transferred in, like Chartouny and Reinhardt, experienced their lowest career steal percentage while playing for Marquette. Andrew Rowsey’s solid steals rate as at UNC-Asheville cratered when he hit the floor in Milwaukee. Players like Carter and Cohen were the opposite and saw their steal percentages decline until they left Marquette, when they improved. At the bottom of the table, Wilson’s junior year rate jumped but that also resulted in a career low in minutes which led to him transferring. It is not by accident that Marquette is bad at creating defensive turnovers. Those skills decline the more time a player spends in the system, are coached out of incoming transfers, but flourish in players who complete their basketball careers elsewhere.

Coaches make personnel mistakes all the time, either in the scouting department or the deployment department. The longer they coach, the more mistakes they’ll make. That’s not enough to call for their removal. In the case of Wojciechowski, it’s an egregious pattern that seems to keep repeating itself.

In 2020, Paint Touches tracked the most efficient lineups, and most included Jayce Johnson over injured Theo John and Jamal Cain over Brendan Bailey. Of course, neither Jayce nor Jamal ended the season at over 50% of minutes played while John and Bailey did.

This season, efficiency metrics showed Marquette was misallocating the frontcourt minutes, and although Justin Lewis’ injury mooted the point, a late change in the starting lineup and a reduction of minutes for Koby McEwen showed a marked improvement in the team’s output.

It’s not a blip. It’s not a nitpick. Wojciechowski’s poor use of readily available analytics and insistence on lineups that produce at lower rates than other available groups once again taxes the team over the course of a season. The sum of the parts is less than the whole.

The beginning of the end?

We’re 2,000 words in and still haven’t touched on one of the most program-altering moments in Marquette history. Seeing Sam and Joey Hauser transfer rather than play on a team with legitimate national championship hopes is still resonating around the college basketball world to this day.

But before we can get to that, we have to bring up that Wojciechowski’s choice to play a clearly injured Markus through groin and wrist injuries at the end of the 2019 season was baffling in real time. Marquette’s best off-the-dribble shooter in a generation went almost three full games without hitting a shot off the dribble. But instead of identifying the limitation and using it as a reason to either rest your star guard or limit his minutes or alter the team’s approach in general, Markus was given full leeway to play as if he was healthy.

And, well, you already know the rest, don’t you? Marquette lost six of the last seven, failed to win any of three games that would have given it a share of the Big East title, and slipped to a 5 seed where it proceeded to get embarrassed against 12th seeded Murray State and soon to be NBA Rookie of the Year Ja Morant.

We don’t know what would have happened if the ball bounces a few different ways against Georgetown in the regular season finale or the refs don’t butcher the Seton Hall Big East tournament game. We can’t say for certain if a different, more favorable matchup in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t result in an alternate scenario. A lot had to go wrong to lead to the exact outcomes that did happen.

What we do know is that two integral parts of the program who had played leading roles all season would rather sit out a year under a different coach than come back to a top-10 team. There are plenty of fingers to point, but the executive of any organization ultimately owns responsibility. So while Wojciechowski undoubtedly deserves credit for building a team that painted to be a Final Four quality squad, you can’t live off of what could have been.

Whatever happened behind the scenes, a potential banner-worthy team didn’t even make it into May. It’s time we stop pointing to that hypothetical as a positive example of roster building.

What is MU paying for?

Marquette spends more on basketball than any other Big East team, and in the top 10 nationally, per the 2019 Department of Education report. The accounting on how schools get to these exact numbers isn’t always clear, but even with that caveat, it is fair to say that MU is in the top 3% of all schools when it comes to funding the men’s basketball team.

Simply spending money doesn’t grant MU success, but it does show that the university is committed to the program. This isn’t the 80s or early 90s, where resources put a hard cap on just how much success a coach could have.

But that cap is no longer there. And yet, when you look at the past 7 years of results, there is a clear dropoff from the 7 years before that.

(Barthag is Bart Torvik’s play on pythag, which is an estimate of what a team’s chance of winning would be against the average DI team. So it is between 0 and 1, and higher is better.)

As seen in the chart above, Wojciechowski’s best season would be the 3rd worst season from 2008-2014 under Buzz and Crean. Put another way, of the past 14 seasons, Wojciechowski owns seven of the bottom nine.

All of this is to say, the losing record in 2020-21 was not a 1 year blip. Rebuilding years do happen, but when the “good” years only put you in the top 40 or so, instead of the top 20 or so Marquette had become accustomed to, it has to be called out and addressed.

If you want to blame the “New Big East” or say that Marquette fans just have irrational expectations, I’d point you to South Orange, New Jersey, where a Big East bottom feeder has not only found new life, it has probably surpassed Marquette in the conference pecking order from both accomplishments and relevance.

In the 7 years before Before Wojciechowski, Seton Hall was a better team zero times. With Wojciechowski at the helm, the Pirates have been the better squad 5 of the last 7 years, including three separate seasons better than Marquette’s best.

Teams rise and fall all the time, so it can be considered a little bit of cherry picking to pit Hall’s best run in almost 3 decades against Marquette’s current form, but it’s not an isolated incident. As the conference currently sits, Marquette is probably not a top half team.

Let me repeat, Marquette’s extended run of form the past 7 years mean that all of Villanova, Creighton, Xavier, Seton Hall, Providence, Butler and now even old friend UConn have had more success both in the Big East and in the Tournament and would have the upper hand slicing up all sorts of benchmarks.

So that leaves us with St. John’s and Georgetown as once dominant programs that have yet to really make noise post reformation, and both have a higher ceiling for 2022 than MU. It is not an alarmist overreaction when we claim that Marquette’s status is that of a bottom half Big East team. Is that really satisfactory?

One Last Time

In the early 2010s, the online arguments we’d have with the national media were about whether MU was a top-20 program instead of the top-30 or so nationally. Lately, it’s only to yell at media members for being too positive or too soft on Marquette.

And for all of the words that have been spilt, what it ultimately boils down to is that Marquette basketball under Steve Wojciechowski’s guidance has lowered the bar as to what is a satisfactory result.

All 3,000 words above point to one thing. We care.

We want the team to be good. We wouldn’t write these blogs or do these pods if we didn’t care. As tough as games have been to watch recently, we watch them all with the hope the team wins consistently and proves us wrong. It hasn’t, but when the program is good again, we’ll still be there with all the support and none of the negativity. If you’re mad about this, don’t direct it at us. We’ve just presented facts. Who you need to worry about are the fans who don’t care, the ones who aren’t even watching the games because Wojciechowski’s tenure has made it a chore to support the team.

A move needs to be made to get them back.