‘Jack-in-the-box’ Gardner fills void in the paint

Sophomore Davante Gardner came to Marquette known as “Ox” because of his large frame and rough style of play inside. Following Marquette’s 74-63 win over Louisville, head coach Buzz Williams may have coined a new nickname for the budding star forward.

“You throw him the ball, and it’s like a Jack-in-the-box,” Williams said. “Throw him the ball, start turning it and everyone’s listening to the music, our guys are cutting because they know he’ll give it to them, and then it’s like, ‘Do you want me to shoot it with my right or my left, or over my left or right shoulder? Do you want me to pivot or not pivot?’ I’ve never seen a guy like that.”

Davante Gardner has filled the void in the paint for the Marquette front court. (Credit: Elise Krivit/Marquette Tribune)

The 6-foot-8 forward turned in one of the most efficient games of his career Monday afternoon, finishing with 17 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes. He did most of his damage against 6-foot-11 center Gorgui Dieng who, entering the game, led the Big East with 3.4 blocks per game and was considered one of the premier interior defenders in the conference.

The 290-pound Gardner has two dunks all season but his unique offensive style of drawing contact and then using his balance to finish around the basket is unlike anything Williams has seen in a big man.

“He’s got as good a touch as any big guy I’ve seen,” Williams said. “To be able to do the stuff he’s been doing, and he’s never four inches off the ground, you’ve got to have incredible touch. He’s shooting it going this way, turning back this way, and he can’t jump. So your hands and feet have got to be really good.”

Dieng played most of his 32 minutes in foul trouble, in large part because of what Gardner was able to do in the paint. Two of Dieng’s fouls, including his fourth with 7:32 to play, came against baskets shot by Gardner. Marquette’s center finished the contest with three basket-and-fouls and made all seven of his free throw attempts. He is shooting a team-best 79.1 percent from the free throw line.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said his team did not defend Gardner the way it should have, allowing him to get deep into the paint for easy looks near the basket.

“He’s a big body,” Pitino said. “You’ve got to play out in front of him, and Gorgui just played behind him.”

Since junior center Chris Otule suffered a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 3, Gardner has entered the starting lineup and been asked to carry a heavier load. He has responded well, averaging 11.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 21 minutes per game while defending taller players in many instances since Otule’s injury.

Senior Darius Johnson-Odom said Gardner has been watching extra film on Otule to get a better understanding of how the injured center helped the offense do “the little things.”

“He’s a horse down there in the paint,” Johnson-Odom said of Gardner. “It’s hard for a lot of guys to stop him because he doesn’t really get off the floor as high as he can and that causes defenders to foul him. He’s very crafty around the basket, and when we get him the ball a lot of things can happen for us.”

Despite Gardner’s physical limitations, Williams said his center has simplified Marquette’s offense through his production when he receives the ball in the paint.

“He can’t out-jump me, he can’t outrun me, he’s not in better condition than me. He says two percent of the words I say on a daily basis,” Williams said. “But, hey, dribble down there and throw it to that guy and then let’s play. That’s not a play. Just throw it to him and we’ll see what happens. No, I’ve never seen a guy like that.”

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