With half of the season in the books, I think we can all agree that YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles are a deeply flawed team this year. The defense has been what we have come to expect from a Buzz Williams led team (#22 in the nation in Adjusted Defense on kenpom.com, 2nd best in the Big East). However the offense has been quite the opposite. As we have seen in just about every game that MU has played against a team with a pulse, this team has serious trouble on the offensive end. This was evident, even in Saturday's win over DePaul. And it was on full display, for the world to see, in the conference opener against Creighton. During that eyesore of a game on New Year's Eve, ESPN's Fran Fraschilla (@franfraschilla) quipped on Twitter to CBS's Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) "Marquette playing 2 1/2 on 5 this season," while discussing the Golden Eagles' offensive woes. And then he added, "Sad that Vander Blue left."
Ah yes, there it is. The fact that every fan, analyst or pundit points to when trying to find some rationale for Marquette's struggles this year: No Vander Blue. "If only Vander had stayed," they say, "that would have made all the difference." While it certainly wouldn't hurt to have Van playing 35 minutes a night in blue & gold right now, this would still be a deeply flawed team. Would his presence be enough to spackle over the holes that have appeared in this year's squad?
In my humble opinion... Yes, yes it would. And here is why:
It's readily apparent that the bulk of the offensive struggles stem from the limitations of the players in the MU backcourt. Until Saturday, Derrick Wilson and Jake Thomas had started every game at the guard spots this season. Replacing either of those guys with Blue, changes the offensive dynamic in so many ways.
The obvious thing to look at is scoring. Vander averaged almost 15ppg last year, while Jake and Derrick are scoring almost 12ppg combined. But more important than just number of points scored, is the different ways that Van could get those points. Currently, you have one guard (Wilson) that is no threat whatsoever to score from outside. Defenders are so unafraid of the possibility of Derrick scoring from outside that they are sagging off of him, nearly all the way to the paint. Then your other guard (Thomas) has been moderately successful shooting from distance (40.3% on 3pt FGs), but is no threat to score going towards the basket (just 1-15 on 2pt FGs!).
Last season, Vander Blue was a threat to score as soon as the ball was in his hands, and defenders had to play him accordingly. While he wasn't a great 3-point shooter, he was enough of a threat that defenders had to respect the possibility that he might hoist one from distance. Also, last season Van developed a mid-range, pull-up jumper that was damn near Kobe Bryant-like. So even if a defender wanted to sag off and play him for the drive, Blue could take two dribbles inside the arc and drain that lethal pull-up jumper. This outside game, and the attention it demanded from defenses, helped create room for guys like Davante Gardner to operate inside. With defenders sagging so far off Derrick this season, Davante is often essentially double teamed, even before he catches the ball. This has made it much easier for opponents to negate one of the strongest elements of this year's team.
Another aspect of Vander's game that is missing this year is his ability to attack the basket. Vander Blue had as good of body control, while driving to the basket, as any player I've seen at Marquette. This allowed him to finish effectively around the rim, and it also helped him create opportunities for teammates off of those drives. That's why I think, if he were still here, Vander would be spending a lot of time as the primary ball-handler on the floor. We've already seen Buzz experiment with Jamil Wilson playing point-forward, so I don't think it would have taken him long to realize that the best option would be to allow Vander to run the offense. Derrick Wilson does a good job of taking care of the ball, but that's really about it. He is willing to drive the lane, but seems to lack the ability to use those drives to set up shots for others. Usually, once Derrick puts his head down and goes to the rack, he's shooting. Rarely is he drawing defenders and then finding the open man, for an easy bucket. Instead he is driving in to get his shot up, and often times rejected. If Van were here, his drives would be drawing all sorts of extra defenders, and if they didn't he'd be scoring layups.
Another thing that's missing this year is the player that can make something happen when everything is falling apart - someone to be the hero. It's something that every team needs to have, because no matter how smart your coach is, there are plenty of times when things just aren't working and you need a player that can say "Just give me the damn ball, and I'll get us a bucket." Vander Blue was that kind of player. If you need any help remembering just flashback to the St. John's game, the Davidson game, the 2nd Butler Game, and so on. Whether it was to win the game, or just to halt a scoring drought in the middle of a half, when we needed a basket last season Vander was the man to get it. This season it's been a little bit trickier. The only time we've really been in a position to win or tie a game in the waning seconds this year was Arizona State, and there we wound up with a missed Thomas 20-footer and a Wilson layup attempt, rejected at the rim. But honestly, who is the best option in that spot this season? Jamil? Davante? Todd Mayo? If Van had stuck around, that wouldn't even be a question.
And there's one last piece of this equation that can't be ignored. The Vander Blue we would have been getting back this year wouldn't have been the same Vander Blue we had last year. This year's version would have been a senior leader, coming off of an incredible tournament run, who had finally emerged as the superstar we had always hoped he would be. He would've started this season knowing - not hoping, not suspecting, but KNOWING - that he is one of the premier players in the conference and in the country. And I suspect that confidence would have helped him carry the level of play we saw from him towards the end of last season, into a monster senior campaign. I know I make the Jerel McNeal comparison all the time, but take a look back Jerel's senior season. That was the type of year I believe we could have seen from Vander as a senior.
I could rattle off more aspects of Marquette's overall game that would be improved with a senior Vander Blue in the lineup (creating more turnovers defensively, scoring more in transition, etc) but I think I've made my point. A player of Blue's caliber can help to cover up a lot of warts - even the multitude of warts that have shown up on this year's Marquette squad.
And lest anyone get things twisted: this is NOT me chastising, or second guessing Vander's decision to leave when he did. I totally get why he went when he did, and despite how things have shaken out for him so far, I think it was the right move. But for my own selfish reasons, I wish he had decided to come back for one last hurrah as a Golden Eagle. We sure could use him.