College Basketball Greats of the Past: Steve Wojciechowski

The second entry in an ongoing series. 

 

“Wojo is hurt.”

Wojo needed to be hurt there. Because in order for Wojo to stand up and clap and show Inspirational Leadership, he first needed to be twisted up like a pipe cleaner by Jamaal Magloire. It’s the only way this meant anything.

I doubt Steve Wojciechowski invented this brand of college basketball player, but he certainly helped its popularity. Aaron Craft is fives times more famous than he ought to be, and he should send Steve Wojciechowski a iTunes gift card to thank him for it.

It wasn’t that Wojo was a bad player … Actually, yes it was. Steve Wojciechowski was a bad player. He shot 39 percent from the floor. He averaged 6.7 points and 4.6 assists as a senior. He was the point guard of the worst Duke team of the Mike Krzyzewski era, the 1994-95 group that lost 18 games and went 2-14 in ACC play.

But here was the thing: Krzyzewski got sick that year, and had to sit out most of the season. This was actually good for Steve Wojciechowski’s legacy in the same way it was good for him that Jamaal Magloire tried to rip off his arm. Because in the midst of all that adversity, Wojciechowski’s floor-slapping and floorburn collecting turned him into a mascot. He was this plucky, never-say-die freshman who wasn’t very big and wasn’t much of a player but Played The Game The Right Way. Ordinarily, Duke’s failures would have been blamed on the Blue Devils’ lack of an ACC-caliber point guard — and Duke would have failed that year regardless — but Krzyzewski’s absence washed all that away. It allowed Duke to be an underdog, and nobody played the underdog better than Steve Wojciechowski.

It allowed him to become Wojo.

And we need Wojo for college basketball to seem important. The players in the NBA are way, way better. The level of basketball played in the NBA is superior to the college game to a degree that is comical. Everybody intuitively knows this, even if they don’t like the NBA.  What is important, then, for college basketball fans, is a sense of connection with the players. It’s a feeling that Wojo and I chose the same school and went to the same classes and drank at the same bars and, most importantly, Wojo cares as much as I do and we are in this together. 

Therefore, it is helpful if it seems like your team’s success is largely the result of how much it cares about your school and, by extension, you. When Wojo slaps the floor, he’s not doing it for any practical reason, he’s doing it to communicate to you, the fan, that he is in this foxhole with you, and you will stand and cheer the floor-slapper because, dammit, he might not be able to beat anybody off the dribble but at least you know that makes him as sad as it makes you.

And so we salute you, Steve Wojciechowski, for teaching us that college basketball players aren’t all that good, which is kind of the point.

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College Basketball Greats of the Past: T.J. Pugh

Today I begin a blog series which I’m calling “College Basketball Greats of the Past.” Its purpose is not to celebrate those still-famous players that nobody could ever forget like Paul Pierce or J.J. Redick. It’s to celebrate those players that might be forgotten, players whose contributions at the time might have seemed historically insignificant. In other words, the players that make college basketball’s world go ’round.

He’s Dr. T.J. Pugh now, I think. But at the time he was just “Puuuuuuuuuuugh.” He was one of those guys who made it sound like he was getting booed by his own fans, but not in the way that happened to J.R. Giddens.

T.J. Pugh was not a particularly good player. But he wasn’t bad, either. He was about as nondescript as a basketball player can be. He was 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, which is the most average possible size for a collegiate power forward. He was from Omaha, Nebraska, which is the most average city in the Midwest. His senior year, he averaged 4.9 points and 4.7 rebounds. He shot just under 50 percent from the field and just under 60 percent from the free-throw line. He blocked half a shot per game.

He was adequate.

This being the late 90s, he wore a baggy t-shirt under his uniform. He was not muscular, but you wouldn’t describe him as “lithe” either. I don’t think athletic training was the same then as it is now. T.J. Pugh looked kind of like he’d been spotted shuffling his feet along some broken Omaha sidewalk on the way to a Little Ceasar’s when Roy Williams drove by and asked him if he’d ever played basketball.

I don’t know how stridently Pugh had been recruited. Recruiting information is pretty scarce if you’re going back before about 2003. I’m sure Creighton offered. Probably Nebraska too. There certainly was never a sense of, “Oh man, did you hear about this kid from Omaha KU got?”

And in this way, T.J. Pugh represented everything Kansas basketball has been since at the latest 1989. You hear TV analysts say all the time that KU is just loaded up with McDonald’s All-Americans, but that has almost never been true over the last 20 years. Kansas usually has one or two, and that’s it. Sometimes more, but that’s rare. Whether the coach was Williams or Bill Self, this has been the case.

So there is always room for a T.J. Pugh not just on the roster, but in the rotation. It’s become a real legacy by now. Pugh passed the torch to Bret Ballard, who passed it to Christian Moody, who passed it to Brady Morningstar.

These are players to whom nothing was given, and from whom nothing was expected.

But here is what happens: A couple of years go by, and NBA player or two comes through the program, and suddenly you find yourself in a position where you have enough great players — shot-makers, drivers, etc. — but what you could really use out there is a guy who knows where to go and how to set a good screen and how to reverse the ball to the third side and will slide his feet on defense and doesn’t think he was born to be the hero.

And that’s when you take out C.J. Giles and put in Christian Moody, or you start Brady Morningstar instead of Josh Selby.

That was T.J. Pugh. As a senior, he was better than Lester Earl and (probably) drove a much crappier car. Was he great?

Well, not by your standard definition.