When Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder left Marquette last spring, it left a void both in the leadership and scoring departments. For the first time in Buzz Williams’ tenure, there was no returning player with the accolades and experience to fill said void without a hitch. It was an unknown.
Through 23 games Vander Blue has stepped into the leadership role the Golden Eagles needed — as both he and Buzz Williams have noted on multiple occasions — and, albeit in a smaller role than Crowder and Johnson-Odom did it, has helped a low-scoring offense with his team-high 14.6 points per game.
Before the season I guessed Blue would become Marquette’s “go-to guy,” and that his dedication in the gym this off-season would pay off in the form of an improved jumper and better shot selection.
Both of them have come to fruition — though, I admit, I haven’t hit on all my predictions (see: Rutgers finishing in the top-8) — and Blue, despite his many flaws his first two seasons, is playing like the guard many expected he would when he committed as a top-40, 4-star recruit from Madison.
Not only are Blue’s points per game up from 8.4 to 14.6, but his field goal percentage and free throw percentage are both up four percentage points each. Plus he’s already made twice as many 3-pointers this year (25) as he did his first two seasons combined (12).
But in the sports world, sometimes the only thing meeting expectations does is create higher ones. This is where my challenge to Blue begins.
His scoring prowess can’t be understated for a team ranked eighth in scoring, and one that has failed to top 55 points five different times.
But it takes more than scoring averages and percentages to determine how a player is affecting his team. Had Blue been in a supporting role this season his numbers would be fine, and looking past his drop in rebounding, assists and steals wouldn’t be as big a deal.
What’s more important than simple scoring numbers is analyzing how a player performs down the stretch when his team needs timely baskets.
Marquette is 3-3 in games decided by five or fewer points or games that went to overtime this year. In Big East play Marquette has been within five or fewer points at the 10-minute mark of the second half, where prime-time players, not just scorers, take flight.
Looking back at the past two seasons, Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder — their respective team’s “go-to guys” — have thrived under pressure, more specifically in the last 10 minutes of Big East games. Blue has not.
While the points don’t stick out much (the percentage of Marquette’s points do), Blue’s field goal percentage in the final 10+ minutes of Big East games leave plenty to be desired. It appears shot selection is an issue down the stretch.
But sometimes the final 10 minutes of a game aren’t necessarily clutch situations. I wanted to know how each of these players performed in “close games,” the aforementioned contests that are within five points (either way) at the 10-minute mark.
The obvious disclaimer here, of course, is that Blue is a junior while Butler and Crowder were seniors in these breakdowns. But Blue has taken on the same role as those two then-seniors and, thus, expectations have increased. If Blue is going to be the “go-to guy” and carry Marquette into March, he needs to perform in the clutch. And it hasn’t happened thus far.
So where does he rank among this team? After all, if Blue’s numbers are worse than current NBA talents Butler and Crowder but are tops on this year’s teams, no harm, no foul.
But a closer look shows that Blue needs to be this year’s team’s clutch player.
I didn’t track minutes in these games, though by and large Marquette’s lineup the final 10 minutes consist of Cadougan, Blue, Lockett, Jamil Wilson and Gardner. The numbers clearly show that. Before I get to Blue, Jamil Wilson’s numbers should jump off the page. His first half numbers forced Williams to move Anderson into the starting lineup, but Wilson has made the most of his late minutes. Gardner, as expected, has dominated.
Blue has attempted the most shots of anyone in the final 10 minutes, yet his field goal percentage is the lowest on the team. The first 30 minutes count, and Blue has excelled in the early stages — he’s shooting 51-of-102 (50 percent) before the final 10 minutes come about. But the clutch factor counts, too.
Vander Blue has been Marquette’s best player through 23 games. I’ve been a supporter of his since the moment he stepped on campus (you can find examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here).
But now that he has arrived as Marquette’s go-to scorer, he needs to become Marquette’s go-to player. If he continues the current pace he’s on, Blue’s junior season will go down as a complete success. He could actually win Marquette’s Most Improved Player award for the second straight season.
But in order for Marquette to take the next step — to win close games down the stretch that are inevitably coming — Blue needs to make the jump in the clutch.
That is my challenge for Vander Blue.
*Editor’s note: The point totals for Marquette may be a few numbers off since some of the statistics used came after the 10-minute mark. But I wanted to use some possessions that came after close to that mark.*