Communication plays vital role in development of Marquette’s Vander Blue

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A recent growing buzzword in college basketball is the importance of the “culture” of a program. Culture within a college basketball program dictates how things work and it’s use as a word and as a concept is meant to influence players — and in some cases fans — into believing that certain activities or teachings are put in place as part of a daily routine to help the players on a team succeed and win games.

Some teams preach their culture and have a different identity every single season, or quickly lose focus of their culture within a season and unravel.

But after five consecutive NCAA Tournament bids and multiple former players defying initial NBA expectations, it’s no doubt that Buzz Williams’ culture for Marquette men’s basketball is working — and culture could be a big reason for their continued success in winning games at the college level and producing NBA players that are immediately prepared to contribute.

Former Marquette players under Buzz Williams like Wesley Matthews, Jerel McNeal, Lazar Hayward, Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom have all had varying degrees of success in the NBA, but many of them defied their initial pro expectations to forge an identity on their NBA team.

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Draft hopeful and junior guard Vander Blue hopes to make the NBA as well, and he’s already focused on the culture of Marquette basketball under Buzz Williams as his backbone for success in the future.

“I think it’s the way we go about everything. Coach Buzz always makes it about getting our business done even though it’s college basketball. So we go about things as a professional would at the college level,” Blue told NBC Sports.

To hear Buzz Williams speak on the culture of Marquette basketball is an interesting thing. Many coaches in America are able to talk-the-talk, but in Buzz’s case, he has a very particular outline for his players and how they learn the cultural identity of Marquette basketball. And with five consecutive 20-plus win seasons and three consecutive trips to at least the Sweet 16, who is to argue with Marquette’s culture under Williams?

“It’s about accountability day-after-day and impacting our guys in a positive way so that when their career is finished, they’ll be prepared to succeed,” Williams told NBC Sports.

Culture for Marquette basketball focuses heavily on different forms of communication both on-and-off the floor.

“We spend an inordinate amount of time off-the-floor talking about communication and the ways that we can improve that,” Williams said. “We teach guys how to properly introduce themselves, how to make eye contact with people, how body language affects other people and how to say certain things and certain phrases. Every player is taught about body language and how to communicate to others by using basketball examples.”

Driving home “basketball examples” includes a Marquette student manager filming the team’s bench to pick up body language examples — both good and bad — and Williams also giving an initial vocabulary test to new players to make sure guys are using the correct terminology when talking about basketball within the Marquette program.

“We’re over-the-top in making sure our guys communicate,” Williams said. “We call (our terminology) the ‘words we use’. We have certain words and phrases for our program that we stress to our players and when we include those words in scouting reports, or if an assistant coach uses one of those words on the white board before a game it will always be in quotes to stress the importance of it.”

College kids are accustomed to taking written tests on a weekly basis, but they likely don’t come from their own head coach like Buzz Williams does with his players at Marquette.

“We give vocab tests to our new kids so that they figure out the terminology that we use and how we communicate with one another,” Williams said. “Our guys are going to hear the same words all the time and they’re expected to use those words to describe what we’re doing.

“I’ll spend 20 minutes with our new guys in July and say, ‘here’s the words we use,’ and I’ll use pictures and examples and explain it to them so we’re all on the same page. It’s really elementary, but it’s something that we really stress in our program and in our culture.”

Watching Vander Blue during the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in May, it’s clear that the value and message of communication within Marquette’s program has gotten through to him. Blue is one of the more vocal guards to work out and is constantly talking about basketball terminology to his trainers during the workout.

Blue believes that his ability to communicate and do the little things — things stressed heavily in Marquette’s basketball culture — will help him with his professional basketball future.

“Every practice you have to go hard and you have to talk and you have to speak to teammates; and these scouts like that,” Blue said. “Not all of the guys are loud and active, but (Williams) makes us do it. So you can be the quietest man in the world — but if you play for Coach Buzz — you have to talk, you have to help somebody out, you have to get on the floor, and you have to do the dirty work.”

But it wasn’t always easy for Blue to adjust to the college game and Marquette’s culture. The Madison, Wisconsin, native was the most highly touted recruit Buzz Williams had landed at Marquette — Blue was No. 24 overall and a five-star prospect in Rivals’ final Class of 2010 rankings — and after an up-and-down freshman season, Blue had a breakout year his sophomore year before becoming a key member of Marquette’s Elite Eight team during his junior season.

“For all of the hype (Vander) had in the region, after the type of year he had as a freshman, there were people that called him a bad player and me a bad coach but it was just the beginning of his growth in our program,” Williams said of Blue. “He had to adjust from playing in high school to playing high-major basketball and it will be another adjustment for him to adjust from high-major basketball to playing in the pros.”

Williams believes that Blue’s growth as a player helped him become the leader that he was on this season’s team, in which Marquette replaced departed veterans and 2012 NBA Draft second-round picks Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. Blue averaged 14.8 points per game for the Golden Eagles and hit a few memorable clutch shots, including the game-winning layup to put Marquette past Davidson during an unbelievable come-from-behind effort in the NCAA Tournament.

“To replace two guys — of Jae and Darius’ caliber — Vander had to step up and be more than he was as a sophomore. That included being our leading scorer and consistently defending the other team’s best player on the perimeter,” Williams said. “Could he have done that as a freshman? No. Could he have down that as a sophomore? In certain times, yes, but that growth as a player helped him produce as he did as a junior.”

Blue also sees the value in his growth and maturation as a player. Although initially consumed by scoring as many players are after leaving high school, Blue learned to play a complete game thanks to Marquette’s culture.

“Everybody is so worried about scoring; scoring is only going to get you so far and there needs to be guys that are focused on preventing the other guy from scoring,” Blue said.

It doesn’t hurt that Blue’s close friend and Buzz Williams’ first signee at Marquette, Jimmy Butler, had a breakout second season with the Chicago Bulls. During Butler’s three years at Marquette — Jimmy’s freshman season was spent at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas — Butler also saw his game grow and Williams traces it back to his days at Marquette going through their program’s culture.

“Jimmy was the first player we signed at Marquette and he was the type of player that never missed a practice, never missed a game, never missed a late session and always went to every class,” Williams said “He was a guy that we counted on and that’s happened as well in his growth with the Bulls because he’s put in the daily work for a long period of time.”

Blue called Butler “one of his closest friends” and said the two still talk regularly. Of course, communication among Marquette players is an important thing and although some of Buzz Williams’ former players have moved on to the bright lights of the NBA, they are still embedded in the Marquette culture of communicating on and off-the-floor with their teammates.

“I talk to Jimmy pretty much every day. He always tells me to go hard and don’t worry about things because everything is going to play itself out,” Blue said. “He has all the confidence in the world in me, as well as DJ and Jae. They played with me every day. They know what my game’s about, and they know how I compete and everybody is supporting me throughout this process.”

Wednesday’s Three Things to Know: Duke blows out Louisville, Texas Tech falls to Oklahoma State

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1. DUKE PICKED UP ITS FOURTH STRAIGHT WIN IN IMPRESSIVE FASHION (DESPITE MISSING MARVIN BAGLEY III ONCE AGAIN).

Duke was, once again, missing freshman star Marvin Bagley III with a knee injury, but it didn’t seem to matter too much as the Blue Devils ran past Louisville for an 82-56 win. Grayson Allen had 28 points to pace the Duke offense while Wendell Carter Jr. continued to look strong on the interior without Bagley.

CBT’s Rob Dauster explores Duke’s recent stretch without Bagley and wonders if the team might have a better defense without the All-American big man.

2. OKLAHOMA STATE UPSET NO. 6 TEXAS TECH AS KANSAS NOW HAS A ONE-GAME BIG 12 LEAD.

The Cowboys dropped the Red Raiders in Stillwater to earn a Big 12 upset win in this one. But the bigger story is Kansas assuming sole possession of first place in the Big 12 with another Texas Tech loss. The two Big 12 leaders are still scheduled to meet in Lubbock on Saturday as the Red Raiders will get a chance to even things up with the Jayhawks in the conference race.

First, Texas Tech has to get senior guard Keenan Evans healthy again. Hampered by a toe injury the past two games, Evans didn’t look close to 100 percent on Wednesday night. An unhealthy Evans is a big reason for Texas Tech dropping a few games.

3. VIRGINIA TECH GETS THE NIGHT’S BIGGEST BUBBLE WIN

On a busy Wednesday night for bubble teams, no team did more for its case than Virginia Tech. The Hokies took advantage of a depleted No. 15 Clemson in picking up an ACC home win.

While Virginia Tech has looked like a safe bet to make the field thanks to some big wins, the win on Wednesday gives the Hokies a fifth Quadrant 1 win — a huge safety net for a team trying to get in the field.

CBT’s Rob Dauster has more on Virginia Tech’s NCAA tournament hopes while he also breaks down the rest of Wednesday’s bubble action in Bubble Banter.

No. 5 Duke’s defense turns up again as Blue Devils look like title favorite

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Duke is back!

After drubbing Louisville 82-56 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night, the Blue Devils have now won four straight games despite the fact that they have been playing without Marvin Bagley III during this stretch.

Grayson Allen is back, too. He finished with 28 points on Wednesday night, making six threes and handing out threes assists. He entered Wednesday night averaging 22.3 points and 5.3 assists in his last three games, the first time all season long that he has scored more than 19 points in three consecutive games. He’s shooting the ball with confidence. He’s been moved into more of a playmaking, lead guard role in the half court offense as Coach K has transitioned back to being the focal point on that end, the first time he’s been in that role since his sophomore season.

Wendell Carter’s been on fire, too. He missed his fourth-straight double-double by a single rebound on Wednesday, but he did finish with 18 points, six assists and three blocks. In four games without Bagley, he’s now averaging 16.3 points, 10.5 boards, 3.0 blocks and 3.0 assists.

But that’s not why Duke is winning these games.

It’s not why I’m sitting here saying that Duke is back.

The reason why I’m warming up to the idea of Duke finding a way to be a Final Four team again is because they’ve figured out a way not only to just get stops, but to be damn good on the defensive end of the floor.

During this four-game stretch, Duke has not allowed a team to break 1.0 points-per-possession against while holding three of their four opponents to 57 points or less. In those four games, they’ve allowed 0.883 PPP. If they did that over the course of an entire season, the Blue Devils would be third-nationally defensive efficiency* behind only Virginia and Cincinnati. In the process, they’ve managed to climb from 79th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric to 27th, which is precisely the kind of drastic defensive improvement that the 2015 team made. They were in the 60s and 70s in adjusted defensive efficiency for much of the season. They were 37th before the tournament started. They were 11th when they cut down the nets.

And it begs the question: Is Duke better without Marvin Bagley III?

Lol.

No.

Don’t be stupid.

Marvin Bagley III is an alien. He makes every single team that he is on a better one.

What will be interesting to see is how Duke integrates him back into the team when he finally does return to the floor. There are two things that have allowed Duke to improve the way that they’ve improved over the course of the last two weeks, and both of them involve Bagley in a pretty significant way:

  1. The ball doesn’t stick as much offensively as it did when he was on the court. That’s why Allen’s been able to play the way that he’s played of late. The middle of the floor has also opened up because Duke’s gone away from trying to run high-low actions as much as they did before. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better to run offense this way, but you cannot convince that it’s a bad thing that Allen is back into a rhythm.
  2. Much more importantly, however, is that Duke has turned into a very good defensive team in this zone, and the biggest reason for that is the activity of Javin DeLaurier. Bagley is a terrific athlete, but he’s more of a five at this level than a four and he’s also a guy that is not an instinctual or, frankly, energetic defender. DeLaurier is more mobile and, since he’s not really a threat offensively, he can burn off of his energy on that end.

Bagley wasn’t the lone culprit for Duke’s defensive problems.

The bigger issue may have been simply that the Blue Devils vacillated between playing man and zone until these last four games, and Coach K fully embracing being a zone team has allowed them to figure it out. As one high-major coach put it to me, it’s better to be great at one defense than it is to be good at seven of them. Duke is doing that now.

But there is valid reason to be concerned about playing Bagley and Carter together simply because playing them together has been an issue defensively before.

Maybe that means that, instead of seeming them on the court together for 30 minutes a night, they’ll each play 10 minutes with DeLaurier at the four and play together for 20 minutes. Maybe it means that instead of being awesome defensively Duke is simply good enough, and maybe good enough is all they need to make a run in March this season.

And maybe the answer is that Bagley returns and is ready to defend the way that he needs to defend.

We’ve seen that happen, too. Remember the Miami game?

Whatever the case may be will play out over the course of the next six weeks. The one thing that is clear, however, is that these Blue Devils are suddenly a whole lot more intriguing than they were two weeks ago when they lost at North Carolina.

*(For those looking at KenPom, raw points-per-possession and KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric are two different numbers. The latter is the former adjusted for strength of opponent.)

Williams helps No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Grant Williams bounced back from one of his worst performances of the season to score 23 points and No. 19 Tennessee beat Florida 62-57 on Wednesday night to hand the Gators their third consecutive loss.

Williams had a season-low five points Saturday in a 73-62 loss at Georgia. The Tennessee scoring leader responded Wednesday by shooting 8 of 13 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the foul line.

Florida trailed nearly the whole way, but threatened in the final minute.

Chris Chiozza made a basket to cut Tennessee’s lead to 60-57 with 24.5 seconds left, and he got fouled by Williams in the process. But Chiozza missed the ensuing free throw and couldn’t get Florida any closer.

Jordan Bowden made a pair of clinching free throws with 14 seconds left.

Admiral Schofield had 16 points and eight rebounds for Tennessee (20-7, 10-5 Southeastern Conference).

Jalen Hudson had 13 points for Florida (17-11, 8-7), and Chiozza and Keith Stone each added 11. Chiozza also had nine assists and six rebounds.

Florida was seeking a quality road win that could boost its NCAA Tournament credentials.

The Gators entered the night 65th in the RPI and have a demanding schedule the rest of the way. Florida hosts No. 12 Auburn, visits Alabama and hosts Kentucky in its final three regular-season games.

The offensive struggles that have hindered Florida lately carried over. Florida had more turnovers (eight) than baskets (seven) during a first half in which it shot 26.9 percent overall and 1 of 10 from 3-point range.

Tennessee closed the first half on an 11-1 run to go into the locker room with a 27-18 advantage.

The Vols extended the lead to 10 early in the second half, but Florida crept back into the game while Williams was on the bench with three fouls.

Florida was trailing by just one point when it had two chances midway through the second half to regain the lead, but Deaundrae Ballard missed a 3-pointer on one possession and Dontay Bassett missed a baseline jumper the net time the Gators had the ball.

Tennessee then created some distance by going on a 7-0 run that included a Jordan Bowden dunk and five points from Schofield.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: The Gators continually misfired from 3-point range for most of the night. They missed 15 of their first 17 3-point attempts before making four of their last seven. By the time they finally started to heat up, they already had dug themselves too deep a hole.

Tennessee: The Vols got big efforts from their two top players — Williams and Schofield — and didn’t back down when Florida finally started making its shots down the stretch. Tennessee preserved its lead by going 13 of 15 from the foul line, including 9 of 11 in the second half.

UP NEXT

Florida: Hosts No. 12 Auburn on Saturday.

Tennessee: At Mississippi on Saturday.

VIDEO: George Mason stuns Saint Joseph’s with second buzzer-beating win this season

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George Mason knocked off Atlantic 10 rival Saint Joseph’s with a ridiculous buzzer-beater for the second time this season on Wednesday night as Ian Boyd was the hero this time.

The Patriots went the length of the floor to attempt a game-winning shot as a loose ball ended up in Boyd’s hands at the top of the key just before the game ended. Boyd launched a quick prayer and knocked it down to give George Mason the unlikely win.

Earlier this season, the Patriots won on another buzzer-beater over the Hawks when Otis Livingston II buried a contested 30-footer to win that one. By this point, Saint Joe’s is probably hoping to avoid George Mason in the Atlantic 10 Tournament after the two devastating losses they’ve already endured.

Harper, Okeke lead No. 12 Auburn to 90-71 win over Alabama

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AUBURN, Ala. — Jared Harper scored 21 points, Chuma Okeke had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and No. 12 Auburn beat rival Alabama 90-71 Wednesday night even without ailing star Mustapha Heron.

Down to seven scholarship players, the Tigers (24-4, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) turned a five-point halftime lead into a blowout thanks largely to big performances from Okeke and Malik Dunbar off the bench.

Auburn responded with Heron out with a stomach ailment one game after center Anfernee McLemore was lost for the rest of the season to an ankle injury.

Collin Sexton scored 25 points to lead the Crimson Tide (17-11, 8-7).

Bryce Brown scored 18 points for the Tigers despite shooting just 3 for 14 on 3-pointers. Harper also had six assists.

Okeke, who figures to be a key figure on replacing McLemore, scored 13 points in the second half and finished with a career-high. Dunbar also turned in his top performance with 14 points. Desean Murray had nine points and eight boards.

Auburn took command with a 17-2 run after having its lead cut to one early in the second half.

Sexton made 8 of 12 shots for the Tide, but other top scorers struggled.

John Petty, who had eight 3-pointers and 27 points in the Tide’s January win, missed his first eight attempts and finished with three points.

Donta Hall came in hot but had just seven points and five rebounds. Backup point guard Avery Johnson Jr. scored 10 points.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama: Had won five straight games over ranked teams and could have made a big statement for the NCAA Tournament. Came into the game giving up a league-best 65.6 points in SEC games.

Auburn: Moved a step closer to clinching its third SEC title and first since 1999. Game had to be a confidence builder for players like Malik Dunbar and freshmen Okeke and Michell.

UP NEXT

Alabama hosts Arkansas on Saturday.

Auburn visits Florida on Saturday night.