Marquette key returnee: Davante Gardner

Editor’s Note: This month, ESPN Insider’s college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation’s best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: MarquetteInsider, which Dana O'Neil delves more into here. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.

Marquette’s Davante Gardner is listed at 6-foot-8, 290 pounds, but he’s probably hovered above 300 throughout his career.

Despite his big frame, Gardner was a strong presence for Buzz Williams’ squad last season. He averaged 11.5 PPG and made 83.5 percent of his free throw attempts. He was ranked fifth in offensive efficiency (122.4 rating) among players who’d used at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions, per KenPom.com. He shot 59 percent from the floor.

Yep, the Golden Eagles were embarrassed in that 55-39 loss to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. But Gardner, who went 6-for-9 and recorded eight rebounds, had 14 points.From Feb. 25 until the end of last season, Gardner shot below 66 percent in just one outing (1-for-4 against Butler in the third round of the NCAA tournament).

Vander Blue’s baffling decision to enter the NBA draft certainly affected projections for Marquette.

Still, Williams’ squad returns Jamil Wilson and Todd Mayo. Chris Otule has applied for a sixth year of eligibility. And Marquette’s incoming freshman class is ranked 11th by RecruitingNation. The reigning Big East tri-champ is not in rebuilding mode, even though Blue’s absence and the graduation of Trent Lockett present voids within the team’s perimeter presence that less experienced players will fill.

But the Golden Eagles will boast one of the nation’s top frontcourts, especially if Otule returns.

Gardner, the program’s most significant returnee, is a critical element in that prediction.We all recognize Gardner’s potential (see 26 points, 7-for-7 from the field, eight rebounds in Feb. 25 win over Syracuse). He was a member of the all-East Region squad in the Big Dance. He earned the Big East’s sixth man of the year honor, too. And he also averaged just 21.5 minutes per game. Consistency was a challenge throughout the year, although he finished forcefully.

This offseason is significant for Gardner. He has a chance to guide Marquette back to the NCAA tournament and the top of new Big East.

But Williams needs the big man to be in great shape so he can log more minutes. It wouldn’t be the first time that a hefty player slimmed down to help himself and his team. Glen “Big Baby” Davis was the size of a small SUV his freshman season at LSU.

By transforming his body and improving his conditioning, however, he’s made millions in the NBA. A similar makeover could lead to comparable strides for Gardner, too.

The demands are far more than physical, though. He’s a senior now, a leader by default in most programs. It’s an important quality for any upperclassman. He will demonstrate leadership with his focus and commitment to his overall game and conditioning this offseason. If he shows up to next season’s first practices in better shape, then I’m sure his teammates will have more respect for him.

That latter adjustment will also magnify his defensive impact because his position features lengthy, agile athletes with the quickness to maneuver around him. Enhanced conditioning will make Gardner a better and more versatile defender.

His rebounding numbers must improve, too. He has to be more explosive.

Let’s say Gardner is the same guy in 2013-14 that he was last year. That’s sufficient. He was one of the Big East’s top big men. He was productive and efficient.

But he hasn’t reached his ceiling.

There’s another level packed inside that large frame. We watched him dominate in stretches last season. He can do that again.

The truth, however, is that he can do much more for Marquette if he’s focused in the coming months.