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.”

Dana Altman, now in his first Final Four, should have been fired over Oregon’s rape case

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Dana Altman shouldn’t be coaching in the Final Four. He should have been fired three years ago.

Mark Few and Frank Martin probably shouldn’t be coaching in the Final Four, either, but the circumstances are entirely different.

Few is the head coach of a program that was considered the worst job in the WCC as recently as 25 years ago, a program that had no basketball pedigree to speak of when he got the job, a program in a city that is more Montana than it is Seattle.

Martin?

He’s a longtime high school coach and a former nightclub bouncer in Miami that took over a bad South Carolina program, one that had never won two games in the NCAA tournament and had taken just four trips to the NCAA tournament in the previous four decades, because he didn’t like his boss at Kansas State.

Those guys are the ultimate success stories.

Altman has done a terrific job building Oregon, who had been to just 10 NCAA tournaments in 73 years, into a national power that has been to five straight NCAA tournaments and, now, an Elite 8 and Final Four in back-to-back years, but the success that he’s had shouldn’t cover-up the black eye left on this program back in 2014.

In March of that year, prior to the start of the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments and after the Ducks upset then-No. 3 Arizona in Eugene, three Oregon players — Dominic Artis, Damyean Dotson and Brandon Austin — were alleged to have committed forcible rape of a female student at the university. The woman’s father would notify the Oregon police department the next morning while the woman would make a report to the Eugene police on March 13th, the day that UCLA beat Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament. Artis and Dotson combined for 15 points and 23 minutes in that loss.

Austin did not play.

He had been suspended by Providence for the 2013-14 season because he had been accused of sexual assault by a female student in the fall of 2013, transferring to Oregon that January, just two months before his second allegation.

EPD contacted Oregon that day, alerting them to the fact that three players were being investigated, but, according to a statement from Oregon at the time, did not tell the school which players were being investigated or what the investigation was for. Artis and Dotson would combine for seven points in each of the two NCAA tournament games the Ducks participated in that year.

None of this was made public until early May, when the EPD released a graphic police report detailing the allegations against the players. All three were suspended from the university less than a week later and, within two months, were dismissed from the school and banned from campus for 10 years.

“I’m comfortable with the way we handled it,” Altman said. “It was three years ago. But I think in retrospect everything was handled correctly.”

The players never faced charges.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Altman was rightfully questioned for allowing players that were accused of sexual assault to play in Oregon’s tournament games, but it’s hard to criticize — and, frankly, harder to actually believe — a coach for listening to the police when they told him not to interfere in a criminal investigation.

The mistake Altman made was with Austin.

The cause for Austin’s suspension did not become public until March 18th, when the Wall Street Journal reported the details of the allegations, but it was the worst-kept secret within basketball circles.

Everyone knew.

Which means one of two things happened, either:

  1. Altman brought in a player that had been accused of sexual assault just months prior to his transfer, and he allegedly did it again on Oregon’s campus, or;
  2. Altman didn’t put in the minimal amount of work required to figure out why Austin was suspended, which allowed him to make his way to Oregon, where he allegedly assaulted another female student.

There’s no middle ground there.

Either Altman didn’t do his job, accurately vetting why a player had been suspended, or he lost a bet on whether or not a kid he brought into his program was actually a predator.

Both of those are fireable offenses.

Altman escaped any real punishment — he was named along with the university in a lawsuit filed by the accuser for “deliberate indifference”, which was settled for an $800,000 payout in August of 2015 — and he almost immediately turned things back around. Despite returning just three scholarship players, he won 26 games in 2014-15, finishing tied for second in the Pac-12 and returning to the NCAA tournament.

“Our guys did a great job, our staff did a great job. We had great support from the university. So it went fairly smooth,” Altman said.

A year later, Altman was in the Elite 8 for the first time in his career.

That was one year ago.

He’s now in the Final Four; no one ever said he wasn’t a hell of a basketball coach.

That’s doesn’t mean that he deserves the job that he has, and it certainly doesn’t make him or Oregon a feel-good story.

John Calipari reminds Kentucky fans to remain classy in defeat

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Before traveling to Phoenix for the Final Four festivities, Kentucky head coach John Calipari used his Twitter account in an effort to diffuse the anger members of Big Blue Nation have directed at a referee following a heartbreaking loss in the Elite Eight.

In the days following the season-ending loss to North Carolina, some fans — not all — have harassed official John Higgins. They’ve flooded the Facebook page of his roofing business, leaving negative reviews and lowering his company’s star rating. Some have gone even more extreme, going as far as sending death threats over the phone.

Based on the replies, some have received the message. Others haven’t. The latter, despite it being a small but vocal group, can, unfortunately, paint a fan base with a broad brush.

Mark Emmert: NCAA Board of Governors to meet ‘in the next few days’ to determine N.C.’s tournament standing

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Late on Wednesday night, the state of North Carolina reached an agreement to repeal the controversial and discriminatory House Bill 2 law, which is commonly known as the bathroom bill.

The NCAA had given the state a deadline of Thursday morning to make a change in this law or they would miss out on hosting NCAA tournament game until the 2022 season, so it’s not hard to connect the dots here. The pressure the NCAA asserted on the state helped create a change.

The question is just how much of a change, as many believe that the repeal does not do enough to change what is discriminatory about the law.

“What distinguished North Carolina,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said, “there were four distinct problems that the board had with that bill, and they removed some of them but not all of them. If you removed two or three of them, is that enough?”

The NCAA Board of Governors have stretched out the process of determining future tournament sites as far as possible, Emmert said, meaning that a decision on this new bill will be made soon.

“Because this happened on such short notice, we have to find a time to get together with the board, and that will probably happen in the next few days,” Emmert said, and in those meetings, the board “will determine if this [new] bill is sufficient change.”

“I’m personally very pleased they have a bill to debate and discuss. Hopefully we can be in a place where we can announce the board’s decision early next week.”

Gonzaga’s Mark Few named AP Coach of the Year

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Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has added to his program’s banner season with an individual award, being named AP Coach of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

Few led the Bulldogs to their first Final Four. The Zags enter the national semifinal with a 36-1 record. Up until Feb. 25, they were flirting with a perfect season. A loss to BYU is currently the only blemish on their season.

Few also won his 500th career game during the course of the 2016-17 season. Since 2014, two coaches from outside the major conferences have earned his honor. Gregg Marshall was named AP Coach of the Year in 2014 after leading the Shockers to a perfect regular season.

This was a very competitive race this season. Sean Miller lost two players expected to be key pieces this season — and had Allonzo Trier miss 19 games — but guided Arizona to the Pac-12 Tournament championship. Jay Wright led Villanova to another Big East title despite two cornerstone pieces — Ryan Arcidiancono and Daniel Ochefu — gone from last season’s national championship team. For a while, Baylor’s Scott Drew seemed to be the favorite. The Bears didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason top-25 poll but went on to earn a No. 1 ranking.

Few’s season continues on Saturday against South Carolina.

Frank Mason is named AP Player of the Year

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Kansas point guard Frank Mason III was named the AP Player of the Year on Thursday afternoon.

The senior floor general for the Jayhawks headlined the AP All-American team, which included UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball, Villanova Swingman Josh Hart, Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan and North Carolina small forward Justin Jackson.

Mason averaged 20.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists, and shot 49 percent from behind the 3-point line during the 2016-17 season. He helped guide Kansas to its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title.

He becomes the fourth senior in a row to win the award, preceded by Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminksy and Creighton’s Doug McDermott.

He had previously been named player of the year by NBC Sports.