Check the box score from the November 29 game in Gainesville a year ago and you’ll see a blowout. An 82-49 win for the no. 7 Florida Gators over Marquette. Look at Chris Otule’s line — 18 minutes, 0-for-1, one rebound, one personal foul, -21 rating — and you’ll see an overmatched center who allowed counterpart Patric Young (10 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, two steals) to go off in the blowout.
Worse, what won’t show up in that box score is the bulky left-knee brace Otule lugged around. What won’t show up is his noticeable struggle to make it up the court and gain position on the low block. There are no exact numbers to describe the way he allowed guards and forwards past him while failing to find a body to box out when Gator shots went up.
If that assessment seems harsh, it should. The sixth-year senior Otule will tell you the same. He had feasted on weaker competition to that point, averaging 8.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16.5 minutes through six games. But in Marquette’s first road test, Otule looked like a player returning from ACL surgery without a real role in the Golden Eagles’ eventual conference championship/Elite Eight season.
“I’m not gonna lie, in the beginning of the season it was so hard,” Otule told Paint Touches, specifically noting the game in Florida. “Just the soreness of running up and down the court my knee would get, sort of — I couldn’t even play the minutes that I was capable of. I was limited to a couple minutes. I couldn’t get position on the block or even run up the court without feeling sore.”
But that sobering performance wasn’t the end for Otule. Occurrences like that never had been.
The 6-foot-10 center wasn’t going to let his career end on the bench or on a trainer’s table. The kid from Houston who averaged 2.0 points per game as a high school junior, who had come so far and overcame so many previous obstacles that should have ended his career, couldn’t let this be it. Wincing with every step he took in a Gainesville arena couldn’t be how everyone remembered Chris Otule.
It couldn’t be how he remembered Chris Otule.
So he worked. Like he always has. He came in hours before daily workouts and practices to receive additional treatment on his surgically repaired knee. He continued to retool his offensive game and he found his role — “I had no idea what I was going to play like” — on a team that needed every ounce of what he was capable of at his best.
As his knee progressed and he continued his re-acclimation of what it was like to play in the Big East, his numbers soared to new heights. During a 10-game stretch in conference play, from Jan. 28 to March 2, Otule averaged 7.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 20.3 minutes. He made 32 of 39 shots (82 percent), including a 16-point effort on 8-for-8 shooting in a win over Notre Dame. He scored in double figures twice in the NCAA Tournament (Davidson, Miami) and even recorded his first career double-double in the third round.
It was that late stretch of play that convinced Otule to return for a sixth and final season, a decision that was made official in May. Otule admits he knew for a while that he wanted to exhaust his final season of eligibility but didn’t want to make it a distraction had he announced it publicly.
“I kind of knew I was gonna come back and try to put together two years. My time here at Marquette, I’ve never played two years a row and I figured it would look better on my resume,” he said. “I think it looks better instead of just playing one year after getting hurt.”
The overseas option entered the 23-year-old’s mind, but ultimately the thought of putting on the Marquette uniform one last time to see what happened was too much to pass up.
“Sometimes I thought that if I stopped right now I could be making some money, just not as much. Instead of just putting one year together I wanted to play for two years. I’ve never played two years in a row and I wanted to have the chance to do that. I don’t want to be labeled as injury prone.”
He may never shed that label, though another healthy season under his belt may do just that. One sign that he’s taking the next step toward doing just that is the literal shedding of that knee brace he carried around so infamously at Florida, instead using a simple sleeve next season for protection.
“I talked to [head trainer] Ernest [Eugene] and one of our team doctors and we’re starting to take steps toward not using the brace next year,” he said. “When I do individual workouts I don’t wear the brace, but during team workouts and open gyms I use it. I’ll wear the sleeve but the knee itself is feeling fine. I just have to keep rehabbing it.”
Eugene watches how Otule performs in simple rehab drills — one-legged hops, for example — and then tracks his progress in team workouts. If all checks out, and it sounds like it will, Otule will see an increase in mobility and, subsequently, production next season.
“I can jump higher. The brace kind of limited me to some extent,” he said. “I couldn’t move how I wanted, moving side-to-side and doing things I could have done. So the brace, it helped keep my knee stable coming off ACL surgery this past season but it limited me.”
Buzz Williams has said from the start that Otule, who incredibly has been at Marquette since Williams took over as head coach, always had a scholarship for that sixth season if he so desired to return. That helped in Otule’s decision to return, knowing a coach like Williams would be there to see his unique career path through.
“I’ve known him for so long that it’s just kind of a family. I know everything about him,” Otule said of his head coach. “Buzz has always been in my corner since I first got here. It was just that he’s a hard lover, and when I say that I mean he pushes you to the max on the court and off.”
From that court in Gainesville to where he is now, it’s apparent that the “max” Williams will receive from his 6-foot-10 sixth-year senior will be plenty. You’ll want to check these box scores.