MILWAUKEE — Vander Blue is so competitive that it burns him up inside. It sends him to the gym late at night to practice anything that might lift Marquette to another victory.
Buzz Williams latches on to every critical word said or written about the Golden Eagles, and uses it as fuel to power his team to the next level. The coach sweats so much during games that it looks as if he played instead of just prowled the sideline.
It’s the perfect March match, a partnership that each side hopes will lead to a breakthrough in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.
“I’m not a professor in how I coach, like I don’t get into all of those things, and so I’m attracted to guys with an edge like Van and I think that probably goes both ways,” Williams said. “But his fire burns really, really bright and that’s been so healthy for our team, particularly as we’ve improved that we’ve continued to have that same competitiveness.”
Thanks to Blue, Williams and a deep roster, Marquette (25-8) is back in the regional semifinals for the third consecutive season and will face second-seeded Miami (29-6) on Thursday night in Washington. The Golden Eagles got a nice send-off on Tuesday afternoon that included performances by the pep band and dance team, but it was clear from their demeanor they were in no mood to celebrate.
This is where Marquette’s season ended in each of the past two years, and Blue and company are focused on the school’s first trip to the Final Four since Tom Crean and Dwyane Wade made it to New Orleans in 2003. Wade then went on to stardom in the NBA and Crean eventually moved on to Indiana.
Of course, the top-seeded Hoosiers take on Syracuse in the other semifinal of the East Region, putting a possible matchup between the coach and his former school on the table should both teams advance.
“I’ve had enough of Sweet 16s, man, I want to get over the hump,” Blue said. “That’s why we haven’t celebrated much about this. We’re happy we won, but we just got back to work and just got back to doing what we do. Just keep grinding.”
Marquette’s first two games of the tournament were quite the grind. The third-seeded Eagles nearly lost twice in Lexington, Ky., but found a way to survive each time.
Davidson led 49-40 in the second half before Marquette rallied for a 59-58 win on Blue’s slashing layup in the final seconds. Butler led 35-27 at halftime in the third round, but Blue scored 19 in the second half to rally the Eagles to a 74-72 victory in one of the best games of the tournament so far.
“That’s just another Marquette game. ... We’ve played in a lot of those, and so we practice that way, we play that way,” Williams said.
The Eagles are shooting 38.4 percent for the tournament, but Williams played 11 guys in each of the first two games, and it clearly helped them at the end of each victory.
“It goes to how hard we play,” Marquette senior guard Trent Lockett said. “It’s hard to play 110 percent 40 straight minutes, and Buzz knows that, that’s why he does substitute so quickly and tries to get guys in there fresh.”
It also helps to have a player like Blue, a former prep star in Madison who has steadily improved in each of his three seasons with Marquette. The 6-foot-4 junior is averaging 14.8 points and has scored in double figures in each of the last five games.
Blue’s overtime layup in the regular-season finale lifted Marquette to a 69-67 victory over St. John’s and gave the Eagles a share of the Big East title for the first time.
“I think his game has matured and I think he has matured as a human, just natural growth, natural development,” Williams said.
It hasn’t been a completely smooth process, either. Blue acknowledged that his competitive spirit hurt him when he wanted to play all the time as a freshman.
He said he thinks Williams deserves some of the credit for his maturation.
“Me and Coach Buzz, we have a really different type of relationship,” Blue said. “He’s not just my coach. He’s more like a mentor, a father, somebody that I can just come to about anything. Anything I need I know he’s there for me.”
Blue and Williams raved about the chemistry on this year’s team, and the Eagles are going to need that togetherness when they take the court against Miami. Led by star guards Shane Larkin and Durand Scott, the Hurricanes won the regular-season and tournament titles in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But Miami is in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008, and the Golden Eagles are desperate to make it to Atlanta.
“We’re hungry,” Blue said. “We’re just hungry for more and just want to keep winning.”