MILWAUKEE — Just how much can Marquette rely on the big duo of Chris Otule and Davante Gardner this season?
“I think they can pay the rent,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “I think those two guys can pay the rent. We could probably rent a good house.”
As the Golden Eagles open up the Maui Invitational on Monday against Butler, it’s been apparent that Otule and Gardner are ready to play a big and necessary role for the Golden Eagles. More importantly, they’ve shown that they are healthy, something that was only true for nine games last season.
They’ve become Marquette’s security blanket. When all else fails, throw it down to the post. And through two games, the Golden Eagles have had their offense stall often. Two of Marquette’s top three leading scorers, Gardner is averaging 16.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, while Otule is scoring 10.5 points per game.
“They’ve been outstanding, both of them,” Williams said. “Chris is so big that when you play teams that are smaller, obviously they are diving in on the post, he’s got to do a better job of keeping it up high. But both of those guys, in both games have been really good. And you could tell even (Tuesday) when things were struggling, we were relying on them. Which I think that’s positive.”
Just seeing Otule back on the court is encouraging. Just 11 months ago he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, the latest in many serious injuries that have threatened his career. Freshman year it was a broken left foot, sophomore year he needed surgery on his right foot and his season was over after just three games. Then last year it was the ACL. In total, Otule has missed 55 games in his career.
There’s one condition that will never go away for Otule. He was born with just one eye, the other wasn’t fully developed. He’s had an artificial left eye since he was a baby, replacing it whenever he outgrows his current one. Because of this, he struggles with depth perception, which hurts him on the glass. It’s why he’ll never have gaudy rebounding totals, in fact, it’s more important for him to play another role in the team’s rebounding plan.
“I think with his element I think it trends towards just don’t let your guy get it,” Williams said. “That’s not justification, that’s just reality. He’s got to take his man out of the play and our guards have to rebound down. He’s not ever going to be a great offensive rebounder. He’s a better offensive rebounder when he shoots the ball than when somebody else shoots it because he can see the flight of it.
“The first two years, nobody even knew what his case was. Now that everybody does, that’s the deal. Like he had zero offensive rebounds against Colgate, but his guy didn’t get any either or many defensive rebounds for that matter.”
Never being much of an offensive threat either, Otule has shown, albeit against severely undersized competition, that when healthy he can be counted on for more than just defense.
“I didn’t think it would come back this fast,” Otule said of his offensive game. “You know my size, being so big that I can just use that to create angles for myself offensively.”
Then there’s Gardner. The big bodied, strong forward that is very skilled offensively and near impossible for smaller players to stop. Coming off the bench, Gardner is Marquette’s leading scorer and may be its most important player.
Without the man they call the “Ox”, Tuesday’s upset bid by Southeastern Louisiana might have been reality. Early on the easiest way for the Golden Eagles to score has been dumping it down to Gardner and Otule. They’ll either score or create an open shot for a teammate.
And you think it’s difficult for opponents to guard Gardner? Just ask Otule about practice.
“It’s just a big fight in practice between me and Davante,” Otule said. “We make each other better. I’m supposed to be a pretty good defensive player and he’s supposed to be a good offensive player, so we just utilize that to help each other out.”
But both have had an injury history. Gardner missed over a month last season with a knee injury. It taught Marquette how to play without both of its big men, but the Golden Eagles don’t want to do that again.
“We want them to stay healthy,” Williams said. “Those two guys are different in what they can do. They are different in their skill set and our players have a feel for that. It changes the dimension of our team. As time goes, if they are having to double the post that creates opportunity for our perimeter.”
Sizing up the competition: If Marquette is able to beat Butler on Monday, it’s likely that No. 11 North Carolina would await Tuesday in the Maui Invitational semifinals.
The Tar Heels face Mississippi State on Monday and if the Golden Eagles win, they face the winner. If they lose, they face the loser.
In the other half of the bracket, Texas faces Division II host school Chaminade in its Maui opener, while Illinois faces USC.
Regardless of how it fares, Marquette will play three games in three days, something that Williams feels will be good for his team.
“I think Maui, as difficult as it may be, will teach us a lot,” Williams said. “Three games in three days, everybody will have to be on point to have a chance. I think we have done some good things, but the things we need to work on is pretty evident.”