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.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.