It's all go for Wojo Basketball: After early setbacks at Duke, former Gibbons star Steve Wojciechowski has worked his way into the heart of the Devils' plans.

November 29, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- He wasn't supposed to be in the starting lineup for Duke this season. Some didn't even expect Steve Wojciechowski to be in coach Mike Krzyzewski's regular backcourt rotation.

"He didn't accept the fact that he was going to be our 11th man," Krzyzewski said Wednesday night.

Three games into the season, the 5-foot-11 junior from Severna Park and Cardinal Gibbons School is not just in the rotation and not just starting at point guard. Three victories into the season, Wojciechowski has simply been Duke's best player.

It's not only his nose-to-nose defense -- well, nose-to-chest defense in most cases -- that has resulted in a dozen steals. It's not only his assist-to-turnover ratio, a seemingly implausible 19-2. It's not only his nearly nine points a game, more than twice his career average. A career 33 percent shooter, he has hit eight of 13 shots this season.

"I've told our players, 'When you use a standard of comparison to get better and work hard, just use Steve as the standard,' " said Krzyzewski. "He's carried us, really. He's been the spark for us. He's been our MVP."

It was about an hour after Wojciechowski's 10 points, five assists, five rebounds, three steals and two stitches had helped the sixth-ranked Blue Devils beat No. 22 Tulsa, 72-67, in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT.

Duke (3-0) will meet 20th-ranked Indiana (4-0) tonight at 9: 30 in the championship game at Madison Square Garden. After two years of struggling, Wojciechowski is ready for the spotlight that followed him to Durham.

"It was a tough time," Wojciechowski recalled of his freshman season. "With Coach being out, it made it that much harder for me. But I would have to say it made me a tougher person."

Wojciechowski was one of the many scapegoats in Duke's free fall in 1994-95, a season in which Krzyzewski was sidelined with a back injury after 12 games and the Blue Devils went from a 9-3 start to a 13-18 finish under former assistant Pete Gaudet.

Often overmatched against taller, quicker and more talented point guards around the Atlantic Coast Conference, Wojciechowski went from being a starter to barely playing by the end of the season.

"He had a lot of pressure on him," said Krzyzewski. "He's not Bobby Hurley. He's not Tommy Amaker. He's not even Quin Snyder [point guard on the 1989 Final Four team and current assistant coach]. He's Steve Wojciechowski, and that's pretty good."

Krzyzewski blames his own absence for many of Wojciechowski's early problems, which continued into last season, when he started four times in 31 games and averaged 3.4 points and 2.7 assists in about 20 minutes a game.

"His freshman year was damaging mentally because he didn't follow the normal route," said Krzyzewski, who returned last season. "But last year was a good step to become what he is now."

What Wojciechowski has become is what Krzyzewski calls "the heart of our team."

With the loss of 12 pounds during an off-season regimen that included weight training, hourlong sessions on the StairMaster and what he calls "good living," Wojciechowski has gained the quickness to play against nearly every point guard he faces.

That much was evident against Tulsa. Wojciechowski's two layups -- the first off a steal -- brought the Blue Devils back from a 10-point deficit late in the first half. His three-point shot started an 11-2 run early in the second half that helped Duke build a 10-point lead.

And the elbow he took in his right eye on a drive by All-American Shea Seals, which temporarily knocked Wojciechowski out of the game, seemed to inspire the Blue Devils the most.

It was one of the rare times when Wojciechowski seemed satisfied with his performance.

"You always want to leave it all on the floor," he said. "It's a high when you can do that."

Wojciechowski's play so far this season, particularly against such an athletic team as Tulsa, has not only inspired his teammates, but it has also surprised a few.

"He's playing way over his head right now, but I hope it continues," said junior guard Ricky Price, who came in with Wojciechowski two years ago.

"He's had two years' experience, and he's maturing," said sophomore guard Trajan Langdon, who was also part of the same recruiting class before sitting out last season with a knee injury. "But I don't think anyone expected Steve to play as well as he has."

Langdon's inability to run the point, in part because he was slow coming back from the injury, opened the door for Wojciechowski.

That door could close next season, when a freshman from Augusta, Ga., named William Avery is expected to challenge for the job. Avery's coach at Oak Hill, Steve Smith, has said that Wojciechowski knows he's going back to a backup role.

Possession might not quite be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to starting jobs in college basketball, but Wojciechowski isn't going to give it up easily. "I'll do whatever they want," he said. "But I've worked very hard to get where I am now."

Pub Date: 11/29/96

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