Seniors took different paths to Marquette but all four made impact
MILWAUKEE — Though their paths to the school may have been different, Marquette’s four seniors have all left their mark on the program.
Chris Otule has been around so long he’s seen the Golden Eagles win eight NCAA tournament games. Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson have been key cogs on two Sweet 16 trips and an appearance in the Elite Eight. After coming to Marquette as a walk on, Jake Thomas has turned into one of the better 3-point shooters in the Big East.
More importantly in the grand scheme of things, all four have either graduated already or will graduate in the coming months.
While the group’s final season at Marquette hasn’t gone according to plan and likely won’t end with another NCAA tournament trip, there’s much to be celebrated Saturday when the four play their final regular-season game at the BMO Harris Bradley Center against St. John’s.
"It’s hard to believe it’s the last home game of the season, not just my senior year," Wilson said. "It seems like we were just starting up. It’s going to be bittersweet."
Wilson’s collegiate career began at Oregon, as the forward headed out west after an impressive run at Racine Horlick High School. Marquette was going through a coaching transition at the time of his commitment and couldn’t quite catch up in time to lure Wilson from the Ducks.
After playing 16.9 minutes per game his freshman season, Wilson watched as his coach, Ernie Kent, was fired. Oregon had gone 24-39 over the past two seasons and was moving on from its long-tenured coach.
Wilson made up his mind to transfer and eventually decided to come home and play for the Golden Eagles.
"Like I told my dad when I left, I wasn’t accustomed to losing," Wilson said. "I didn’t like it too much. Plus, the coaches had just left. I felt like it was the right move. I tell my dad all the time that I wouldn’t trade it in for the world. I felt like I did the right thing coming here to a winning program.
"I’ve done great things, have played with great players and have made lifelong friends. I think it was a great move. Sometimes I look back and think if it would be different (if he had stayed at Oregon). All in all, I think I made the right move."
One of the more talented players to come through Marquette in the last few years, Wilson has been asked to do quite a bit for the Golden Eagles. He’s played all five positions on both ends of the floor and often was the x-factor in whether Marquette won or lost.
"He’s so talented that I have become frustrated with him at times," Marquette coach Buzz Williams, who hasn’t been available to the local media outside of postgame press conferences since Jan. 2, said on his weekly radio show. "He’s so talented that you almost expect him to be perfect."
Wilson, who will play in his 100th career game at Marquette on Saturday, has averaged 9.4 points per game in three seasons with the Golden Eagles. At 6-foot-8 and with the skill set of a guard, Wilson certainly will have a professional future somewhere.
"We’ve had to have him," Williams said. "I’m not so sure, as much as I’m going to miss Chris personally, as much as we’ll miss Davante from a scoring lens, that we won’t miss Jamil the most. Just because of his versatility."
Gardner came to Marquette as an out-of-shape unknown commodity, so shy he wasn’t willing to speak to people. He’ll leave as one of only 45 players to score more than 1,000 points at Marquette.
The Big East’s sixth man of the year in 2012-13, Gardner holds a career scoring average of 10.1 points per game. He was an offensive weapon from the minute he stepped on campus, but conditioning and defensive issues prevented him from playing more.
Gardner committed to improving his body this past summer and has been able to play 26.2 minutes per game this season, leading Marquette in scoring at 14.9 points per game.
"There’s no way anybody could have thought he would have the type of career he had," Williams said. "We were subbing him for offense his freshman year, and he didn’t even look like a Division I athlete.
"He’s quiet by nature but has an unbelievable ticker in regards to he wants to win. He really cares about winning. His instincts as a player are as good as any, regardless of position, when the ball is in his hands. I’ve never coached a guy as good as he is in the interior with the instincts he has."
While Gardner’s accomplishments on the court have been documented, what he will remember the most out of his time at Marquette is how he’s grown socially and as a person.
"When I first got here I wasn’t talking a lot," Gardner said. "I never made eye contact when I was talking to people or when they were talking to me. That’s the most important thing I’ve learned. I came out of my shell."
Gardner credited former assistant coaches Aki Collins and Tony Benford as well as Williams for aiding with his social development. Wilson remembers when his teammate would only talk to his freshman roommate, Jamail Jones.
"You can’t even put that into words," Wilson said of Gardner’s personal growth. "That’s just something you’d have to watch — to see him go from being as quiet as a little kid at daycare with no friends to now being as goofy as he is.
"He’s really opened up and showed people he has a sense of humor and is really intelligent. It’s something to witness, really. The kid is a character. I’m glad he finally did it."
There was a time when Saturday’s ceremonies would have only included three seniors. Thomas, who had already graduated, walked into Williams’ office this summer and told the coach he wanted to go somewhere he could play.
"That’s really all it was," said Thomas, who played 8.9 minutes per game as a junior. "I didn’t want to spend my last year of college sitting on the bench. Obviously you have to try to play wherever you are. I wasn’t giving up, but I just wanted to make sure I’d have a chance to play.
Thomas explored his options, took official visits to two schools and couldn’t find a fit at a new school. By then, Vander Blue had unexpectedly declared for the draft. Marquette had available minutes at shooting guard, and he decided to come back.
Williams was more than willing to have him. Thomas has had to play more minutes than expected this season, averaging 7.9 points per game and shooting 38.8 percent from beyond the arc.
South Dakota was the only school to offer Thomas a scholarship out of Racine St. Catherine’s High School. He averaged more than 13.0 points per game in two seasons with the Coyotes — including two games against Marquette.
"When I was playing against them I never thought I would be playing for Marquette," Thomas said. "My Marquette career has gone by so fast. It’s been really fun."
While Thomas may feel his Marquette career has gone by fast, nobody would say Otule’s time donning the blue and gold has flown by. Finishing his sixth season with the Golden Eagles, Otule has overcome obstacles to become a productive collegiate player.
Williams has never had a practice or a game at Marquette without Otule around. There’s certainly going to be a strange feeling around the Al McGuire Center next season when the 6-foot-11 center is gone.
"How do you quantify what to say about somebody that’s been a part of the entire deal?" Williams said. "I think part of his growth has been because of his setbacks. That’s always hard to talk about."
Through playing with a glass eye and two season-ending injuries during his career, Otule has earned a high level of respect from everyone associated with the program.
"He’s one of those people that can walk into a room and brighten up the room," Wilson said. "Chris is that person exactly. He’s well-respected. Everyone pretty much loves him. He’s a big teddy bear. He’s one of those lifelong friends."
In some ways, Otule’s injuries may have helped him improve as a player. He went through countless individual drills with coaches during his rehab processes and the work has shown. Not a star, Otule got the most out of his ability and was valuable on and off the court for Marquette.
"Some of the most elementary things we did for him is what has allowed him to get to this point," Williams said. "And most of all, the example that he has been of what work is. It’s part of society’s problem, but you talk about a kid that’s not scared to work and a guy that shows up every day, Chris Otule is that guy.
"He’s never had bad body language, doesn’t have an AAU coach or clown in his ear saying, ‘Buzz doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ He has none of that."