Chris Marcus seems well within his rights to be jumping at the chance to get back on the basketball court. He mostly has been forced to watch as his team, Western Kentucky, stormed to a 16-3 record and entrenched itself as one of the top mid-major teams in the nation.
Marcus, one of college basketball’s premier centers, helped Western Kentucky to a 4-0 start including a season-opening victory at Kentucky and a No. 17 national ranking but has missed the last 14 games with a broken bone in his foot.
He is nearing his return, but instead of rushing back to try to help the Hilltoppers make their second straight NCAA tournament appearance and improve his prospects as a projected lottery pick whenever he decides to leave school, Marcus is practicing patience in his recovery.
“Basically, I want to take my time I don’t want to rush anything. I don’t want to come back too quick,” said Marcus, who averaged 16.7 points and 12.1 rebounds last season.
Maybe it’s because Marcus, a junior, has more perspective than an average 22 year old. As a high school junior, Marcus wasn’t looking to play college basketball or even go to college. When Dennis Felton saw him, he didn’t miss him.
Felton, then an assistant at Clemson, was visiting Olympic High School in North Carolina to recruit George Leach (now at Indiana University) and Calvin Clemmons (Charlotte). Olympic coach David Davis told him about Marcus, a 7-foot-1 behemoth who had never played organized basketball and whom he had yet to convince to play for Olympic.
Felton knew at first sight Marcus had boundless potential. He encouraged Marcus to play his senior year, emphasizing the opportunities athletically and academically college basketball could bring him. Felton, who made sure he brought Marcus with him when he was hired at Western Kentucky in 1998, must have had a way with words.
Marcus was named Sun Belt Conference player of the year in 2000-01 and was a fixture on preseason All-America teams this season after leading Division I in rebounding last season.
Marcus has matured a great deal in college, considering when Felton first encountered him at Olympic, Marcus was as meek and unassuming as a 7-footer could get.
“The college experience has done for Chris what it is supposed to do,” said Felton, who played at Howard University. “It has opened his eyes to a different world he’s become intrigued and curious about things. In the classroom, he’s gone from just doing what he had to do to wanting to learn.”
Academically, Marcus has made the biggest strides. He entered Western Kentucky in the fall of 1998 as an academic nonqualifier under NCAA rules and sat out his freshman season while taking remedial courses as a Prop 48 casualty.
Marcus, who now carries a 2.5 GPA, is taking 20 credits this semester so he can finish his degree in sociology this spring not bad for a guy who had no college aspirations four years ago.
He said he wants to finish school this semester before the NBA Draft, but he will not hire an agent and will take the necessary steps to ensure that he retains his eligibility if he is not happy with his draft position and can come back to Western Kentucky after the draft. He would likely begin work on a master’s degree if he chose to return for his senior season.
“You can’t go wrong staying in school,” Marcus said. “When you’ve come this far, you have to finish through.”
That’s rarely heard these days at all from a college player, let alone one of the top pro center prospects in the country. For Chris Marcus, it’s just prioritizing he went to college to get a degree, and considering where he was going four years ago, it makes sense.
“The basketball stuff,” he said, “is kind of extra.”