Feb. 24, 2014
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - As he marches toward Saturday's Senior Day game versus Illinois State, Saluki center Davante Drinkard recognizes how he has grown up both literally and figuratively during his four years at Southern Illinois University.
When he arrived on campus in 2010, the wiry 17-year-old rookie experienced culture shock. Having missed most of his senior year of high school due to a major ankle and foot injury, suddenly he was battling every day in practice against the likes of Carlton Fay, Mamadou Seck and Gene Teague.
"It was extremely competitive every day going against those guys," he recalled. "Mamadou would die before he loses, and Carlton was a guy who would break your arm before he'd let you beat him. Gene was 6-foot-9 and 280 pounds and just so big and skilled."
That trio wound up being the top three scorers on the 2010-11 team, but Drinkard held his own and played in all but one game and even started six times while Teague was injured. Drinkard made his first start on Jan. 1, 2011 against Northern Iowa, a squad coming off a Sweet 16 season.
"I was so nervous I didn't sleep at all the night before the game," he said. "I had to guard Lucas O'Rear and I held him to four points and 2-for-6 from the field. Carlton made the game-winning shot with four seconds left."
His sophomore year was a roller coaster. He sat out the first six games to get his academic house in order, but returned in December and had the two best games of his career at SIU. He scored 10 points against SIUE and had a career-high 12 points at Bradley on 6-of-7 shooting. He also started games against Kansas State and Xavier. In late January, however, Drinkard suffered a stress fracture in his foot that sidelined him the rest of the season.
Drinkard literally grew one inch to 6-foot-9 prior to his junior year and bulked up to 245 pounds. He also found himself playing for a new coaching staff and learning a new system. Drinkard played in 29 games -- missing two with a hip pointer -- and his best outing was an eight-point effort at Evansville.
"Playing for two different head coaches, I got the best of both worlds," he said. "Coach (Chris) Lowery is a wonderful defensive coach and if you couldn't guard man-to-man, you couldn't play. Coach (Barry) Hinson is a really good offensive coach and on defense we mainly stick to a zone."
This season, he's been called upon to start 18 times. He leads the team in blocked shots with 17. Although he lost his starting job to freshman Bola Olaniyan, Drinkard says it doesn't bother him not to start.
"I don't mind coming off the bench," he said. "I think it helps Bola's confidence to start. It's for the better of the team and I'm not big on who starts, I just want to win the ballgame."
Although Drinkard is a senior and Olaniyan is a freshman, they are only 11 months apart in age. Drinkard, who is still just 21 years old, needs one class this summer to graduate with a degree in radio/TV. He would like to continue playing basketball overseas or return next season as a graduate assistant coach.
"Right now, I'm just focusing on winning these last few ballgames and making a run in the conference tournament," he said.
While in high school, Drinkard lost his father to an automobile accident. He came to SIU with an immature and fragile psyche, but leaves as a grown man.
"I've learned how to deal with adversity and handle situations with maturity," he said. "Whenever hardships are thrown at me I'm more prepared to handle it now. I've been through the lowest of the lows. I know what the bottom feels like and I know what success feels like."