By: Bobby Bancroft
Special to PaintTouches.com
WASHINGTON — It has to be the worst part of the job. When you walk into a college basketball locker room immediately following a season-ending loss, you never know what you are going to get. Even though most of us become conditioned to think of the players as something far greater, at the end of the day they are just college kids who happen to appear on television screens across the country from November through March, and into the first April weekend if they are the lucky ones.
After Marquette fell to Syracuse 55-39 in the East Region final on Saturday afternoon, the Golden Eagles locker room was exactly what one might expect: pretty quiet. Some of the players had gotten out of there by the time I made my way down there, while others were just behind them as they exited the Verizon Center for the final time until facing Georgetown sometime next season.
There was, however, one player still sitting there in his bright yellow uniform. His shoes were off, but that’s about as far as he had gotten in putting the last touches on his 2012-13 season.
As it turned out, it was Vander Blue, just the player I wanted to talk to for a fourth consecutive day in our nation’s capital. While I’ve only been a special correspondent to Paint Touches, Blue has been a delight to talk to and, even after an extremely disappointing loss, he was able to put Marquette’s recently finished season in proper perspective.
Marquette finished the season 26-9 and advanced past the first weekend of the tournament for the third straight year, finally breaking through to the Elite 8 for the first time since 2003. The Golden Eagles again outperformed the expectations of Big East coaches by finishing tied for first place at 14-4 with both Louisville and Georgetown.
Blue led Marquette with 14.8 points per game but picked up the slack even more so in the postseason. Against Davidson in the second round, Blue hit the game winning layup with just one second remaining in both the game and the season.
In the third round against Butler, Marquette avenged an earlier loss in Maui by knocking off the Bulldogs behind Blue’s 29 points. The junior guard was again a steadying force in knocking off second-seeded Miami on Thursday night with 14 points and stellar defense.
But like the rest of his teammates – Marquette shot just 22.6 percent in the Syracuse loss – Blue struggled be taking 15 shots to get his 14 points.
“I think that it’s been a great season and a great run and I learned a lot,” Blue told Paint Touches. “I’m going to miss playing with the seniors and I wish I we would have gotten farther.”
But that’s just the point. Marquette did get farther. After making the NCAA Tournament in all five seasons under Buzz Williams, the Golden Eagles have a new goal to shoot for. No longer is making it past the Sweet 16 objective Number One. They’ve got bigger fish to fry.
“Obviously we want to get a little further next year, so now we can set that goal. Our goal this year was to get past the Sweet 16, we achieved that. So now we want to get into the Final Four.”
One could make the case that Marquette’s recent rise in program status couldn’t be coming at a better time. As we all know conference realignment has spared no punches with regards to the Big East. Gone are the days of putting eleven teams into the NCAA Tournament – the new league will only have ten to start with next season.
So without the likes perennial NCAA Tournament teams in Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, Marquette needs to be an anchor alongside Georgetown, Butler, and Villanova for the new Big East to keep its place at the top of the college basketball world.
With just one season left, is that the way Blue – an all NCAA East Region All-Tournament team selection, sees it?
“Definitely,” Blue said. “I’m not sure who’s all in the conference but I know we are going to be one of the better teams. I feel like a lot of people are going to be coming for us. We are just going to have to come to play. Everybody’s going to be trying to beat us. Everybody knows about us now, we are nationally known and that’s good for the program.
“We were one of the last teams standing so everybody wants a piece of us. It’s a great achievement to be one of the last few teams so everybody is going to want to take us out next year.”
With his sights set on next season, Blue was able to provide some insight into how Syracuse avenged an earlier season loss to Marquette in the regional final.
“You can’t really simulate that zone. They have long athletes – it’s their primary defense, they play it every single day, they practice it,” he said. “There’s no simulating it. You just have to get it into the middle and make shots.”
And while Buzz repeatedly said during his post-game press conference that he’d like to see the team that beat him win it all, Blue didn’t feel as strong about it, although he wouldn’t mind it either.
“It doesn’t really matter because we are out but I’m really good friends with C.J. Fair, so I wish the best for him. I’ll root for him.
“They have a good chance to win it.”