MILWAUKEE — Marquette coach Buzz Williams is trying to get through the middle of the Golden Eagles’ Big East schedule without a single player taller than 6-foot-6, and it’s wearing on him and his players.
The knee injury suffered by Golden Eagles 6-11 junior center Chris Otule ended his season after only seven games. In late January, 6-8 sophomore forward Davante Gardner sprained his knee and will miss his fourth consecutive game Saturday at home against Cincinnati.
“I think it puts an incredible amount of strain on everybody,” Williams said Thursday. “Any time you’re playing 6-6 and under in a league like ours, you don’t have a lot of protection. When you’re playing eight guys that are all 6-6 and under, regardless of where the game is or who you’re playing, you’re at a deficit from the beginning. We have our hands full.”
The loss of two of the team’s top three rebounders has put added responsibility on 6-6 senior forward Jae Crowder, who, though undersized, is as strong and physically built as any college player in the country. It has also changed the role of wing player Jamil Wilson, who, at 6-6 and far slighter than Crowder, is now expected to do a lot of work in the paint.
“It doesn’t just put strain on Jae and Jamil, it puts an incredible amount of strain on everybody,” Williams said. “When everybody was healthy, nobody played more than 28 minutes a game. Chris gets hurt, then (Darius Johnson-Odom) and Jae are playing over 30 minutes a game. Davante gets hurt, and now we have four guys playing over 30 minutes a game.
“Now we’re basically playing nothing but guards, and so now we’re an even different team. What is the strain it puts on the rest of your roster because everybody’s bumped down? I think that’s hard.”
On Thursday, Williams essentially ruled out Gardner, the team’s No. 3 scorer, for Marquette’s next few games. When Gardner is able to return, Williams isn’t sure if it will even be a positive for his team, which has gone 2-1 without the 290-pound big man, with wins over Seton Hall and DePaul and a loss at Notre Dame.
“It may screw us up (when Gardner comes back),” Williams said. “It may mess us up. Everybody thinks we suck because we don’t have a post player, then all of a sudden we’re going to be good because we do have a post player? That’s all mumbo jumbo. That’s not right.”
Gardner is averaging 9.8 points and is second on the team in rebounds at 5.4, while playing slightly less than 20 minutes per game.
“I don’t know if Davante’s a post player; I just think he’s a really fat guy that can score the ball,” Williams said.
The size disadvantage has hurt Marquette, especially in rebounds, in the last three games without Gardner. The Golden Eagles gave up 11 offensive rebounds to both Seton Hall and DePaul, and were outrebounded by six against Notre Dame.
“I think it’s more of a toll on our bodies,” Wilson said. “I feel like us banging with bigger guys can really be hard and tough, especially when you’re my size and you’re guarding someone with more inches and some power.”
Marquette is 20-5 and ranked 19th in the country after winning eight of nine games. Only one of the Golden Eagles’ remaining six games in Big East play is against a team currently ranked in the Top 25, and that is a regular-season finale at home against No. 11 Georgetown. In the first meeting this season between Marquette and Georgetown, the Golden Eagles lost on the road, 73-70. That game was played with a healthy Gardner, who had 11 points, four rebounds and three steals in 31 minutes.
“Injuries are a part of any sport, but when you have to adjust to those injuries all at one spot on both ends of the floor, that’s really hard to do,” Williams said. “I think that says a lot about our guys that we are 20-5.”
Crowder doesn’t mind getting physical with the biggest players from opposing teams, but with Cincinnati’s 6-9, 260-pound Yancy Gates coming to town, Crowder admitted those matchups do wear on him.
“You have to suck it up at some point and just play,” Crowder said. “I just block that out. It’s tough. It changes up the game plan a lot. It makes other guys step up to the plate who are not used to it. So far they’ve done a good job of it, and we’ve been able to overcome it.
“Everyone has to step up their game a notch when you’re down a soldier or two.”
Williams and his coaching staff never specifically addressed how roles would change with Gardner and Otule out, but the players noticed the differences.
“Coaches really don’t say it because they want to make sure they have everything in control and not make guys panic, but we know it as players that you have to step it up,” Crowder said.
One thing is clear, though, despite Marquette’s success: After last season’s Sweet 16 appearance, Marquette will need Gardner back soon in order to make another strong run in the NCAA Tournament.