Vander Blue stepped to the free throw line in the closing seconds of Marquette’s 63-50 win over South Florida. He had just converted a lay-up to tally his 29th and 30th points of the evening, a new career-high and a feat Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom never accomplished at Marquette, when Junior Cadougan sauntered over to Buzz Williams to ask a question.
“Coach,” Cadougan asked. “You remember when he came here and he couldn’t shoot? And now he scored 30?”
The simplicity of Cadougan’s question is only the beginning of trying to understand the long path Blue – Marquette’s leading scorer – has traveled to transform from a cocky, undisciplined freshman to an inconsistent sophomore to this year, a humbled, confident, all-around competitor leading the way for a Marquette team now tied for first in the Big East.
“I think that Vander is in a really good groove, and I don’t just mean offensively,” Williams said. “I think he’s taking ownership in how we need to function. I think he’s been accountable for his work and his preparation and I think that mentally, physically and emotionally he’s in a really good groove.”
To say Blue was in a groove Monday night inside the BMO Harris Bradley Center – which became a bat-free zone earlier that afternoon – would be an understatement. Blue made 13-of-20 shots, including 21 of Marquette’s 35 second half points, and never went more than four minutes of game action in between baskets after halftime.
And it wasn’t just the final numbers for Blue that made his night so impressive.
Nine of his made field goals were dunks or layups, three more were open jump shots off screens and the other was an open 3-pointer USF failed to rotate on. Of the transformation Blue has made, perhaps none has meant more than his decision-making on when to take shots and when to look elsewhere.
“I think he’s beginning to understand the value of a good shot,” Williams said. “I think the second thing is a lot of his shots come inside-out, so it’s coming after a paint touch. And statistically thinking, we shoot 29 percent better after a paint touch than a non-paint touch possession. So I think that he understands what a good shot is when he goes to the rim.”
Blue scored 13 of his 21 second-half points after Davante Gardner was ejected for throwing an elbow which hit South Florida forward Zach LeDay after a whistle. Sound decision-making – he had just two turnovers in 34 minutes – and not forcing looks had an effect on the rest of the Marquette offense, which shot better than 53 percent and committed just five turnovers after halftime.
The storyline of Marquette’s season had been the lack of a true go-to scorer. That has been washed away by Blue’s recent stretch of play. Since the Green Bay debacle, Blue is averaging 17.0 points on better than 48 percent from the field and has made a 3-pointer in nine straight games. Last year he made eight 3-pointers all season long.
The oft-criticized (to put it lightly) shooting guard put in the effort this summer, dedicating his free time to working on his jumper and, more importantly, becoming the leader he witnessed good friends Jimmy Butler and Johnson-Odom become his first two turbulent seasons at Marquette.
“I know what I can do. I’ve played basketball for a long time and played against the best competition for a really long time. I knew my time would come,” Blue said. “A lot more is expected of me. My early years I could hide a little bit and have guys like Jimmy and Jae cover me, but this year there’s none of that. I have to lead this team and get us to places we haven’t been before.”
Whether it was humility or tentativeness, this year’s team seemed apprehensive to label any one player the go-to scorer. The leader. The one to put the team on his back when the going inevitably got tough. But Blue publicly acknowledged tonight that he is the one who needs to replace those same players he admitted he once hid behind.
For him to do that, Williams knew Blue needed to mature and get rid of the external factors that held him back. An upperclassman, specifically one who has played significant minutes from Day 1 and constantly had the spotlight on him, can drag his teammates one of two ways. With his recent stretch coupled with Marquette’s success, it’s apparent Blue is leading his team down the right path.
“Van is magnetic, and sometimes it’s magnetic in a good way and sometimes it’s magnetic in a bad way. I don’t know that divisive is the right word, but as a freshman and sophomore he had put himself in toxic situations on the floor, when he’s subbing out, all this jive that he’s wearing,” Williams said. “You look at him and you go, ‘What are you doing?’
“But I think he’s past all of that and magnetic can be for good or for bad, and I think he’s beginning to understand good.”
From the 18-year-old kid Cadougan reminded Williams couldn’t hit a shot or make a lay-up as a freshman and struggled to find his identity as a sophomore, to now the unheralded leader of a 15-4 team well on its way to its eighth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the corner Blue needed to turn to silence his critics was turned in impressive fashion Monday night in Milwaukee.
“I just go out there and try to be solid, and it felt good out there and I’m taking rhythm shots, shots I take every day and luckily the ball was going in the ball for me,” Blue said. “[Scoring 30] is a major accomplishment but I care more about the wins and losses. I’m excited we got the win and I was willing to do whatever it took to win.”