Hard work, grit pay off for Marquette's Blue

WASHINGTON -- Vander Blue expected greatness from Day 1.

And why not? He was the hyped Wisconsin talent who committed to Wisconsin only to change his mind and go to rival Marquette.

And he arrived at Marquette and was barely a blip on the radar.

The game-winning shots he hit against St. John’s to claim a share of the Big East regular-season title or the one to beat Davidson to advance to the round of 32 or the 29 points he scored to get past Butler and into a third straight Sweet 16 -- all during his three years at the school -- were hardly commonplace before this season.

It certainly was not as a freshman.

His numbers were average out of high school. His minutes were meaningful at Marquette, but he was clearly a backup.

“It was really hard for me,’’ said Blue. “I wanted to be that guy.’’

Blue wasn’t special. And he knew it.

That’s difficult for any player to accept, especially when you’re the most talked-about recruit in a state in a given year.

But Wisconsin isn’t New York or California. Its top Division I products aren’t as nationally known on a regular basis.

“I had a lot of hype, I was No. 1 for a long time, and I felt like I wasn’t living up to expectations, and that really messed with my head and my confidence,’’ said Blue.

Marquette coach Buzz Williams said he played Blue much more than he should have as a freshman. He said he was trying to help his confidence. But it was already shot.

“It was bad,’’ said Williams. " ... He was trying to figure out who he was.

“The state produces really good players, but it’s not a very populated state with good players, and when one of the few good players gets attention, it can border on the absurd,’’ said Williams. “There’s maybe four or five in a great year, and in Vander’s year, there were two. He’s been told his whole life ‘You’re the guy, you’re the guy, you are the guy.’ Then you commit to Wisconsin [from Madison] and then de-commit and then go to Marquette and play for a no-name coach, and then you’re bad? Everyone is like 'What’s the deal?'’’

Williams said Blue came to Marquette thinking he was one-and-done to the league.

“Maybe he should have been one-and-done on scholarship,’’ Williams joked.

Blue couldn’t get away from the noise.

“It was everywhere I went,’’ said Blue. “People say stuff, kids at school were saying that I wasn’t any good and that I was a bust. It made me work harder.’’

He didn’t quit. He went to the gym and worked.

He was behind Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder as a sophomore, two of the best players in the Big East, and the latter was the conference's player of the year.

“I was a top-20 recruit coming in,’’ said Blue. “I had committed to Wisconsin when I was 15, but I didn’t know anything about college basketball. As I got older, I understood and felt like -- no disrespect to [Wisconsin coach] Bo Ryan -- that for my game it wasn’t a great match with Bo. I wanted more up-tempo, more full-court. Coach Ryan was more of a slow pace, and pack the lane, and run the swing. That’s all good for a certain type of player. I have a lot of respect for him.’’

Blue’s numbers jumped from 5.1 to 8.4 points per game from Year 1 to Year 2, and his shooting went from 39 percent to 41, with his 3s creeping up from 16 to 25 percent.

“He has been very mature and very accountable,’’ said Williams. “He worked on his game all summer. The big shots he hit this season were from the confidence he has that wouldn’t have come if he didn’t have that skill development.

“His competitiveness supersedes any of his skill. It’s as good as I have ever seen. He thrives on it. He wants to play with the guys [when] it’s stacked against him. He wants to see if his team can win. There’s an edge about him. And he hasn’t lost that as his skill has improved. He has maintained that edge. He’s competitive. Early in his career, he thought everyone gave up on him. He knew, at the very bottom, I never gave up on him.’’

Blue has led the Golden Eagles in scoring with 14.8 points, while shooting 46 percent overall and 30 percent on 3s.

If the Golden Eagles are to advance to the Elite Eight after three straight Sweet 16 appearances, Blue will have to be the guy against Miami on Thursday night at the Verizon Center.

“This has been an amazing dream for me,’’ said Blue. “All my hard work has paid off. This is what hard work has done. This is what March Madness is about. My team needed me this year, and I answered."