MILWAUKEE (AP) This was supposed to be the year Marquette wouldn't have to spend the season talking about how they were going to get by without a big man.The Golden Eagles had 6-foot-11 Chris Otule and 6-8 Davante Gardner all 290 pounds of him as options on their front line. Then they lost Otule to a season-ending ACL injury in early December, and Gardner is just now getting back from the left knee injury he sustained in late January.
Gardner's ability to make significant contributions was unclear going into Thursday's NCAA tournament opener, leaving Marquette's profile looking a lot like it has in recent years: smallish but fast. And while coach Buzz Williams knows that conventional wisdom says their lack of size puts them at a disadvantage, he says statistics tell a different story.
"Everybody just says we're little, and we're going to get pulverized inside," Williams said. "And then if you study those numbers, actually we've been more potent in the paint than any other team we've played, except Louisville in our last game. I think our guys have done a really good job."
Marquette finished the season at 25-7, earning a No. 3 seed and a Thursday matchup with BYU, which beat Iona 78-72 Tuesday night.
Williams credits his players for adjusting to injuries.
"It was kind of back to the way we were when I was first hired here," Williams said, referring to the Golden Eagles' recent undersized teams. "The problem with that is, nobody on this team was on that team. And so I think for us to have been on the run that we were on despite the injuries says a lot about who our kids are as people."
Big East player of the year Jae Crowder said playing without Otule, then Gardner, was difficult but acknowledged that the Golden Eagles' quickness can be an asset.
"I think it's an advantage, if we use it, if we take advantage of our speed and quickness," Crowder said. "But if we play the half-court game, of course, they may have the edge and we have to fight a little harder."
Forward Jamil Wilson says he can tell that opponents sometimes get gassed trying to match Marquette's tempo.
"You can tell even sometimes at the free throw line, when guys have a little down time to chat," Wilson said. "You exchange words here and there. Some guys, you can just tell by how hard they're breathing. They're not used to chasing someone around like that."
Gardner missed eight games with a sprained left knee, then returned for the regular-season finale against Georgetown and the Big East tournament loss to Louisville. He had eight points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes in the victory over Georgetown, but hasn't yet shown Williams he's fully ready to handle the pace of an up-tempo game.
"Now that he's back, it's been another adjustment period," Williams said. "But as I said before he got healthy, I'm not going to disrupt the rhythm of who we are. And I'm not going to do that this weekend in Louisville, either."
Not knowing his first tournament opponent was something of a challenge for Williams, who spent time with his assistant preparing for both Iona and BYU.
"I've slept a few hours, but our whole staff has done as much as we could," Williams said.
But that doesn't apply to players; in practice, Williams says the Golden Eagles mostly spent time trying to "sharpen our own saw."
"You can't tell 20-year-old kids, `Hey, if we play BYU, they're going to do this. OK, now BUY's over, and in the next 15-minute segment, if we play Iona, they're going to do this,"' Williams said. "I don't think that's healthy."
Despite earning a fairly high seed, Crowder said the Golden Eagles have to take the same approach they did as a No. 11 seed last year.
"We were hungry last year, of course," Crowder said. "We felt disrespected, of course. We wanted a piece of that high seed, and that's how it goes in the NCAA tournament. But we still have to have that same mindset as coach said it, not get fat, not get caught up in the hype."