- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2013

Davante Gardner needed time to adjust to life at Marquette. He learned first hand Wisconsin is not Suffolk, Va.

“They don’t have seafood up there in Milwaukee,” he said.

He and Jamal Ferguson have overcome that particular shortcoming, though, and are enjoying themselves as the Golden Eagles enter Saturday’s game against Syracuse in the Elite 8 at Verizon Center.

Gardner and Ferguson are Tidewater natives who have relocated 750 miles northeast to help one of college basketball’s top programs. They are proof that Marquette, a Jesuit school of 12,000 students in downtown Milwaukee, has made some recruiting inroads in the southeastern corner of the Commonwealth – not exactly a logical geographic match.

“There’s a lot of basketball talent in that part of the country,” Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams said Friday after practice.

Neither Gardner nor Ferguson envisioned themselves in Marquette’s blue and gold as youngsters. The Tidewater region is ACC country, and hoop dreams form accordingly.

“I thought I was going to end up going somewhere closer like UVA or Virginia Tech because it’s in Virginia,” Ferguson said.

For high school-age recruits, however, situations don’t always evolve according to plan. It’s up to opportunistic programs to find those situations and capitalize.

Marquette assistant Jerry Wainwright once mined Tidewater as the head coach of UNC Wilmington (1994-2002) and Richmond (02-05). Players often accept a scholarship at a school far from home when they’re under-recruited by their top choices, he said.

“For Southern youngsters – and I spent so much time in North Carolina – they are really, really homebodies,” Wainwright said. “They’re not adventurers. A lot of them have cousins. It’s just an interesting social dynamic. For them to go away to school is very, very difficult.”

Gardner ended up at Marquette, Wainwright believes, because schools considered his weight to be a risk. He was 295 pounds when he graduated from Kings Fork High School and is listed at 290 now.

The junior forward has blossomed, averaging 11.4 points per game, second most on the team. His relationship with former Marquette assistant Aki Collins attracted him to the program, although Collins left last year to take an assistant position at Memphis.

Gardner still misses Virginia.

“At first I wanted to get away from Virginia, get away from distractions,” he said. “Now, sometimes I wish I was closer back to home to see my mom and dad since I don’t see them a lot anymore.”

Gardner lamented Milwaukee’s cold weather and actually prefers the social options of Tidewater to his current city. He longs for how he used to spend his summers at Kings Dominion near Ashland or Water Country USA in Williamsburg.

“There’s nothing up there to do,” he said of Milwaukee. “They’ve just got a lake with a beach, but it’s too cold to go out there.”

Ferguson, a freshman from Maury High School in Norfolk, will impact the program more in future seasons, Wainwright said. Collins helped recruit him while he was playing for the vaunted Boo Williams AAU team based in Hampton.

“How we got Davante led to how we got Jamal,” Williams said. “One thing leads to another, and everybody is separated by six degrees. That’s how it worked with both of those guys.”

Ferguson also lamented the differences between cuisine in Norfolk and Milwaukee. He got over that by discovering a Milwaukee location of the Jimmy John’s sandwich franchise.

“I knew it was going to be kind of difficult when I first got here, but I got used to everybody now,” Ferguson said. “Like, all the coaches, they’re real cool.”

Gardner’s and Ferguson’s evoluation, as well as Marquette’s presence in D.C. this weekend, should help whatever future recruiting efforts the program pursues in these parts. Momentum can be a key to recruiting, and the Golden Eagles have generated it in an unlikely location.

“If you have success, Sweet 16, Elite 8, all of sudden there’s a branding, especially with Buzz, of what we’re all about,” Wainwright said. “It’s not so much: is it hard to convince them? It’s hard to find them.”

• Rich Campbell can be reached at rcampbell@washingtontimes.com.

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