A young, lanky Vander Blue had been on campus as a Marquette freshman for just over two months when he entered his first ever “Life Lessons” sessions, led by his new head coach, Buzz Williams.
Williams frequently holds the lectures for his team to talk about life, teach every-day skills and to grow as a team. Former players come back to sit in, and as they like to joke, everyone brings in a snack and something to drink because Williams, as everyone knows, can talk. A lot.
The lesson of that day? “Sand and water.”
Williams spent that summer night ingraining into the minds of his young team that, over the course of the year, he was going to try and tip Marquette’s metaphorical “bottle” over. The players silently looked on as Williams relayed that the Marquette players–the rocks–would fall out of the bottle unless the metaphorical “sand and water”–Marquette’s togetherness–held them in.
Then he singled out the freshman Blue.
“Eventually the bottle is gonna be tipped over, and so you know, young guys, I’m gonna try to tip it over every single day that I see you. I’m gonna try to tip it over every day, Vander. Not because I don’t like you, because I love you,” Williams told the young freshman, who attentively soaked in the information. “And the longer you fight it, the more I’m gonna push it over. Because as you start coming back, you’ll start to realize that it’s not the ‘Vander Blue rock’ that matters; it’s all the other rocks, with the sand and water.”
If five years of attempting to understand Buzz Williams’ philosophies has taught his players anything, then it should come as no surprise that Williams had no issue telling Blue, his first ever 5-star recruit, the highest-ranked freshman to step on campus since Doc Rivers thirty years ago, that individually he didn’t matter. It was a team effort that would win Marquette games.
Marquette’s bottle was tipped over plenty by Williams that year. The Golden Eagles struggled to a 9-9 conference record before senior Jimmy Butler carried the team to a Sweet 16 as an 11-seed, taking down sixth-seeded Xavier and third-seeded Syracuse in the process.
And when second-seeded North Carolina came calling in the Sweet 16 that year, the Golden Eagles’ bottle was tipped over one last time, and the sand, the water and the rocks came pouring out. When that team broke the huddle for the last time in the Prudential Center locker room–after an 84-63 loss to the Tar Heels–a teary-eyed Blue sat down at his locker, pulled off his No. 2 jersey and reluctantly opened up to the media.
“I want to go farther. Sweet 16′s not nearly enough, I feel,” Blue said. “I feel like we’re a National Championship-type team and I feel like we could have got there. We had a perfect opportunity. Next year’s we’re gonna be ready. This wasn’t acceptable. It’s not us. On this stage we shouldn’t have performed the way we did. We’re gonna be ready next year. We’re gonna be back.”
With tears in his eyes, staring blankly into the empty locker across from him, a then-sophomore Blue quietly answered questions following Marquette’s loss to Florida in the 2012 Sweet 16. In a locker room with two seniors whose collegiate careers had just come to an abrupt end, it was Blue who, again, wore the most emotion on his sleeve as he spoke to reporters.
He reiterated how much he was going to miss playing with senior Darius Johnson-Odom, the player and friend who showed him the way the past two seasons, and how much he was hurting to see Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder leave without “a bang,” falling short of the team’s lofty goals as a three-seed.
He perked up for a moment in the five-minute long interview, mentioning how those goals included more than simply reaching the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend. He had done that as a freshman. It again didn’t happen in his sophomore season, and he wasn’t going to accept it any longer.
“It’s another lesson from God,” Blue said through tears in the Phoenix locker room. “He put us in this spot again, wanted to see what we were made of, so that just means this offseason we’ve got to bring it. We know what it’s like to lose (in the Sweet 16). It’s the second time. It’s time to get over the hump.”
Blue is not a senior like the players he shed tears for the last two seasons. 2013 easily could have been–in classic Marquette fashion–about the guys going into the home stretch of their collegiate careers. Seniors Chris Otule and Junior Cadougan were the first players Williams recruited and coached for four seasons, and his relationship with transfer Trent Lockett is as close as he’s had with any player, Lazar Hayward included.
But Blue’s time has come. He is Marquette’s superstar now. His face and heroics can be found on any national website, television station and newspaper. Take a minute and look. You’ll find him.
This year Blue became the player Marquette fans knew he could be when he arrived on campus three years ago. But more than that, he also has become the player Vander Blue knew he could become one day, even when anyone and everyone doubted him.
With Marquette advancing to the Sweet 16 for a third straight season on the heels of Blue’s game-winner against Davidson and 29-point effort against Butler, Blue has no one else to prove anything to…except himself.
He has unfinished business.
Blue is playing for more than what he’s accomplished thus far. Yes, he’s finally “the guy” like he was as a high school senior; this time around Blue is the one making headlines–not Jimmy Butler or Jae Crowder; he has an entire campus and basketball community behind him. That would be enough for most juniors who have just broken into the spotlight. But that’s no longer important to Blue.
Sweet 16 appearances are nice. Marquette is one of a handful of teams to get there three times in a row. But Blue has had his bottle tipped over by Williams enough to know that this just isn’t enough. He’s said so. Twice.
What Blue is playing for now is to avenge the one hurdle eluding him.
As he said through tears a year ago, “it’s time to get over the hump.”