Marquette prevailed against Herb Pope and Seton Hall Tuesday night at the Bradley Center despite the absence of six-foot-eight-inch forward Davante Gardner. The Golden Eagles overcame a sloppy first half to pull out a 66-59 victory, marking their seventh straight win.
It was announced just hours before tip-off that Gardner would sit out with a left knee sprain he suffered Saturday against Villanova. An MRI did not reveal any torn ligaments, and the swelling has receded since Sunday morning. He is listed as day-to-day, but head coach Buzz Williams couldn't set a definite timetable for his return.
"I think it's just hard to guess, when you weigh 290 pounds, how long does it take to get all the swelling out," said Williams. "He will be back. When will he be back? I don't know."
After the announcement in early January that center Chris Otule would miss the rest of the season, Marquette had to make adjustments on both ends of the floor. Otule provided a scoring threat inside while serving as a shot-blocking threat on the defensive end.
Since Otule was sidelined on December 6, Gardner has stepped in and handled an increase in playing time surprisingly well. He is averaging since 11.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in Otule's absence.
Guard Vander Blue acknowledged Gardner's impact following Tuesday's win. "He's a big part of our team," said Blue. "He's instant offense, instant buckets, and you need that at a level like this."
To go along with the scoring, Gardner is also second on the team in rebounding. Blue was a big part of Marquette's success on the boards against Seton Hall. The sophomore pulled down eight rebounds, a career high in Big East play. Five of those rebounds came on the offensive glass.
"When you get eight rebounds and five of them are offensive…that changes the complexion of our team," said Williams. "I thought he was huge."
Although Gardner isn't known for his prowess as a defender, he is a huge presence in the paint as opposing teams try to work the ball inside. Herb Pope exploited his absence, tallying 16 points and seven rebounds against the Golden Eagles.
Jae Crowder and Jamil Wilson were mostly responsible for guarding Pope, and at times looked overmatched. Guards often had to help on Pope, freeing players on the perimeter. Teams with better guards could expose Marquette's extra attention to the paint.
Marquette deserves some credit, however, as they contained Pope and the rest of the Pirates enough to win the game. Notre Dame's Jack Cooley will provide another test for the Golden Eagles on Saturday.
While players like Blue, Crowder and Wilson may be able to help fill the void left by Gardner's absence against a team like Seton Hall, getting a healthy Gardner back will be crucial to Marquette's success against the nation's top teams.
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