MILWAUKEE — For most of his basketball career, Davante Gardner has battled his body. His critics have always been quick to jump on his weight and level of conditioning, trying to find someway to criticize one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball.
While Gardner has silenced the doubters since setting foot on campus, he recognized the limitations he was placing on himself by playing at close to 300 pounds. After being unable to stay on the floor for long periods of time last season, Gardner knew he had to make a change.
The Marquette senior has spent time in the past focusing on improving the condition of his body, but he feels he’s underwent a total transformation this past summer.
“This is way different,” Gardner said. “I’m at 283 (pounds) right now. During the season it might go up because we’ve always got something to do, but other than that my body feels great right now and I can move around way better.
“This is my last year, so I had to do it. I did it mainly so I could make the Team USA roster, but I kept going when I got back so I could get ready for the season.”
Gardner spent time this summer at a national team training camp and was named as one of 16 finalists for 12 roster spots on the men’s junior national team for the 2013 World University Games. While he didn’t make the final roster, Gardner was able to learn quite a bit, including what he can do at a lower weight.
A second-team All-Big East selection last season and the league’s sixth man of the year, Gardner was Marquette’s second leading scorer at 11.5 points per game. His overall offensive numbers were impressive, especially considering he played just 21.5 minutes per game.
Gardner had to be pulled last season due to his stamina, but also due to his deficiencies on the defensive end. At 6-foot-8, he struggled to guard some of the taller centers, while his lack of lateral quickness prevented him from guarding athletic power forwards. Gardner is hoping the effort he put into improving his body will not only keep him on the floor longer, but allow him to start at power forward alongside center Chris Otule.
While it would make sense to start the two big men together, Marquette coach Buzz Williams still has to be convinced by Gardner.
“I want to get up and down the floor and play more minutes this year,” Gardner said. “I can move way better on defense now, I can guard four-men now.
“I’m going to prove (Buzz) wrong this year. When I first got here I had a lot of doubters. Even Buzz doubted me like he always does. I think I’ve proved a lot of people wrong, and I’m going to keep doing that.”
If Gardner can play more minutes, Marquette’s offense will benefit. Not only does Gardner have great footwork in the post, but he is a good passer and is one of the best free-throw shooting big men in the country. Scoring 0.54 points per minute plate last season, Gardner would have had a 16.2 points per game average if he would have been able to play 30 minutes per game.
“Everything is going to work off of me,” Gardner said of how his improved body will help offensively. “I’m not going to make any stupid mistakes this year like I did in the past years. I’m just going to be smart with it this year.”
The national team experience provided Gardner with more than just basketball, as his eyes were opened to the leadership abilities of the top seniors in the nation. Knowing he was going to be needed as a leader for the Golden Eagles this year, Gardner dug in and tried to absorb as much as he could.
“Everybody out there was a leader, even me,” Gardner said. “I surprised myself with that. It’s going to be great to bring it back to Marquette and show everybody.
“All the old guys know what to do. I’m just here to help the freshman so they can come along because we need them this year.”
Otule has been around Gardner as long as anyone on the roster and has watched him transform from an overweight, shy and quiet freshman to one of the Big East’s best players. But it’s been Gardner’s growth as a person that has impressed his teammate the most.
“Davante has just progressed in all areas of his life, not only just basketball but just in general,” Otule said. “When you walk into the room he lights up the room because he knows when to be serious and when to be goofy. You always want to be around those people.”