Diener's injuries forced him to lift

MILWAUKEE -- A basketball sits nestled atop the rafters, a few stories above the practice court at the Al McGuire Center.

Travis Diener was ticked off early last season for something he can't remember. All he can recall is that he was angry enough to hurl the ball up toward the ceiling.

"That's Travis for you," said junior forward Steve Novak. "He's got an edge to him. He gets pissed off pretty quickly and he'd be the first one to throw a ball up there."

While Diener had the strength to throw a ball up to the ceiling with enough force to get it stuck, he didn't have the durability to last through an entire game.

"I got worn down and banged around last year," Diener said of his junior season, which was interrupted by a scary neck injury suffered in a game against Charlotte on Jan. 20.

"His quality of play dropped when his fatigue level set in," Marquette coach Tom Crean said. "He played through it, but it was noticeable to me. But we had no choice because we didn't have a backup point guard."

Finally, after three years of saying he was going to get stronger and improve his body definition, Diener committed himself to the weight room in the offseason -- but only after a nasty ankle injury suffered in the NIT quarterfinals at Iowa State left him unable to play ball from March to June.

"Our strength coach was the only one who was happy I got injured," Diener said. "It was a chance for me to gain weight and I took advantage of it."

Boy did he. Diener doesn't look that much more defined, but he's certainly more durable. For that fact alone, he might be one of the most improved players in college basketball, so far.

How can you tell? Just check his free-throw totals for the 7-0 Golden Eagles. Diener is 51 of 56 at the line through seven games. Through the same stretch a year ago, Diener had earned only 19 attempts. That is the major factor in increasing his scoring to 21.9 points a game (from 17 last year) so far this season.

The rest of his numbers -- shooting percentages, assists, turnovers and steals -- are almost identical. But just getting to the line more often, because he can, has made the Golden Eagles a better team after a disappointing NIT finish a year ago.

"He's getting to the rim more and getting to the rim more means he's stronger," Crean said. "He bought into what he had to identify were his weaknesses. One was strength and that came from conditioning and durability. He improved as an on-the-ball defender and is now always on the attack."

Diener logged a ton of minutes a year ago because he didn't have a backup point. He does now with Joe Chapman and Dameon Mason and will get another backup when Israeli Niv Berkowitz becomes eligible later this month.

"I had to improve, but it wasn't scoring more points," Diener said. "I had to get stronger and my second halves are now better than my first halves. That's because I feel more durable. I'm more fresh at the end of the game, so I can make plays to help our team win. You can make a case that I've improved because I'm getting to the free throw line more."

Scott Holsopple, the team's strength coach, works his players in a similar fashion to what would be expected of them at the NBA's Chicago pre-draft camp. He did the same with Dwyane Wade and Robert Jackson when the two played at Marquette. Diener couldn't lift 185 pounds once last year. Now he can do it seven times, according to Holsopple.

Crean said the ankle injury was hard for Diener in the short term but it might end up being the best thing for him.

"He was able to focus on his lifting and the mental part of the game while he was hurt," Holsopple added. "The confidence that he plays with on the court is also now in the weight room. He's calling guys out in here, too."

Diener said he took the losses personally last year and feels a burden after the Golden Eagles went from the Final Four to the NIT. While Marquette is off to an undefeated start, with a quality victory against Air Force, it has more to prove with Wisconsin and Arizona coming calling on successive Saturdays later this month. The Golden Eagles let both of those games slip away late on the road last season. Conference USA play provide stern tests, as well.

"Those games coming up will tell us a lot about ourselves," Diener said. "I'm not happy about the way things turned out last season. I could have played better. We lost games on paper (like to Southern Miss in Green Bay) that we shouldn't have lost. This team is closer. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the season."

Diener wants to go out with another shot in the NCAAs. If his play continues, he also has a real chance at being the Conference USA player of the year as well as an all-American.

Crean noted that his team had too many empty possessions last season and that he expects Diener to get rewarded more for taking hits going to the rim. Diener is helping his team, while also helping ease some doubts about his own ability.

"I had to get stronger because that was the question people had about my game," Diener said. "I had to be more durable at the end of the game."

It makes it easier for him to be optimistic. Now he's confident his body will hold up throughout the rest of the season.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.