ST. LOUIS - Surrounded by a crowd of reporters not usually seen around an assistant coach, Michigan State associate head coach Doug Wojcik was reminded that yesterday was the two-year anniversary of one of his darkest days in coaching.
On April 1, 2003, Wojcik, then an assistant under Matt Doherty, was fired as part of a complete overhaul of the North Carolina coaching staff after the Tar Heels had just experienced a second consecutive disappointing season. Ten days later, Wojcik, the feeder for David Robinson on those great Navy teams in the mid-1980s, was hired to be on Tom Izzo's staff in East Lansing.
And now Wojcik is being asked to help craft a game plan to beat heavily favored North Carolina, a team he helped construct, in tonight's second national semifinal at the Edward Jones Dome.
"There was a lot of hurt two years ago; I'd be lying if I said there wasn't," said Wojcik, who will take over as head coach at Tulsa when the Spartans' tournament run is over. "The fact that the two paths converged in the Final Four is an incredible thing. I think I have a better chance of hitting the lottery than that happening. I'm just trying to take it all in."
Wojcik, 40, was also careful not to gloat. After all, it was he who helped recruit the Tar Heels' current junior and senior classes and then received criticism when the Tar Heels were going through some problems on and off the court.
"I'm awfully proud of what we did as a staff," said Wojcik, who interviewed for the Navy job last year but then pulled out of the running. "If you look at it now, we made good decisions. Jackie Manuel was a good decision. You certainly wouldn't want to play against Rashad [McCants]. And Raymond [Felton] and Sean [May] are special players. Those guys just needed time to mature."
Wojcik still speaks regularly to several of the Tar Heels. May called him last month to congratulate him after he was named the head coach at Tulsa.
"He was really that person I went to when I struggled my freshman year in terms of breaking my foot and just dealing with issues on and off the court," said May. "Coach Wojcik is a great friend. He's taught me a lot about life, a lot about the game of basketball."
Added Felton: "He's a really special person in my life. He was the one that brought us all together."
With the Spartans' extended run, Wojcik has been unable to spend much time at Tulsa. However, his brother Dave, a former assistant at Dayton and Loyola, has been making decisions in his absence. Several other big names, including Tubby Smith, Nolan Richardson and Bill Self, have used the Tulsa job to springboard their coaching career. "It will be sad to leave Michigan State, but my time has come," Wojcik said. "I've waited 15 years and I need to take advantage of this opportunity."
Frontcourts in forefront
Despite all the talk of the talented backcourts, several Louisville and Illinois players think tonight's game will come down to the teams' frontlines. And that would be just fine to Louisville fifth-year senior Ellis Myles, who had never realized his dream of playing in an NCAA tournament until this year.
When the Cardinals went to the tournament the past two seasons, Myles was on the bench after rupturing his patellar tendon in his right knee, an injury that forced him through a grueling rehab process.
"It's like when somebody passes in your family, it doesn't really hit you right then and there," said Myles, who is averaging 10.2 points and 9.2 rebounds. "I think it will really hit me later on tonight when I start thinking, `I'm actually playing [in] a Final Four.'"
It almost never got to this point. Myles arrived at Louisville overweight and in one of Cardinals coach Rick Pitino's first workouts, the coach threatened Myles, who is from Compton, Calif., that he "was going to be on the first flight back to Compton" if he didn't get in better shape.
Myles is 6 feet 7 and 245 pounds and has lowered his body fat from 18 to 10 percent. He also benches 370 pounds.