BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – After losing interest in high school sports, Chris Marcus chose to work in a Wal-Mart pet department, feeding fish and cleaning cages.
Now, NBA scouts say the massive center for Western Kentucky may be a lottery pick in the summer draft.
After not playing basketball until his senior year at Olympic High School in Charlotte, N.C., Marcus, at 7 feet 1, 300 pounds, has blossomed into one of the most talked-about big men in college hoops. Yesterday, he was named an honorable-mention All-American.
He averaged 16.4 points and 9.4 rebounds in an injury-shortened season for 19th-ranked Western Kentucky.
The Hilltoppers launched their season with a win in Lexington over then-No. 4 Kentucky, ran off an 18-game winning streak, then capped their performance with regular-season and tournament championships in the Sun Belt Conference.
“I’m enjoying college and basketball,” Marcus said. “I guess I’m just making up for lost time.”
But now it gets serious. Western Kentucky, with a 28-3 record and a No. 9 seed in the Midwest Region, will make its 18th NCAA tournament appearance tomorrow when it faces eighth-seeded Stanford, a 3 1/2 -point favorite.
Marcus and the Hilltoppers have come a long way since head coach Dennis Felton first saw the center play in high school.
“He was a project,” said Felton, then an assistant at Clemson. “But I was convinced he was a can’t-miss project.”
After becoming head coach of the Hilltoppers in March 1998, Felton went after Marcus, who had averaged eight points and nine rebounds at Olympic.
Other Division I coaches chose not to gamble on Marcus, whose scanty participation in prep athletics included playing football as a freshman.
At Western Kentucky, Marcus had to comply with the NCAA’s academic eligibility rules and spent his freshman year focusing on classes and post moves. He didn’t play in a game.
“Getting used to college, as well as college basketball, was tough,” Marcus said.
“The sport just wasn’t a passion for me,” he continued. “I’d only played for a year. But I wanted an education. I have four brothers and two sisters and they all have college degrees. I wanted one, too, so I used basketball as a tool.”
For Marcus, a sociology major and criminology minor, studies come first. He is scheduled to graduate in May.
But Western Kentucky assistant coach Pete Herrmann, who coached NBA star David Robinson as a Navy assistant, said Marcus’ basketball potential is unlimited. “I always say Chris’ best basketball is ahead of him,” he said.
In his sophomore year at Western Kentucky, Marcus had a coming-out party defensively, using his size to excel as a rebounder and shot-blocker. As a junior, he led the NCAA in rebounding (12.1 per game) was named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year and led Western Kentucky to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1995.
After adding a turnaround jumper, as well as a powerful drop-step to his offensive repertoire, he could have jumped to the NBA.
As a senior, his decision to stay was second-guessed. In early December, he suffered a stress fracture in his ankle, which forced him to miss two months of the season. “I really thought I may have made a mistake coming back to school,” he said.
But the Hilltoppers went a surprising 15-2 without him, and Marcus returned with a vengeance, averaging 17.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in nine victories.
Marty Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting, said Marcus’ stock hasn’t dropped since the injury.
“Everybody’s seen him, and everybody who needs a center will look at him,” Blake said. “He’s got all the skills.”
Junior guard Filip Videnov said the Hilltoppers are “a totally different team” with Marcus on the court. “We have a lot of great shooters, and when teams have to double Chris in the paint, it opens up shots for all the guards on the outside. When they guard him with one guy, we’ll feed him and let him score. We love him.”
But don’t confuse Marcus with an NBA center just yet. Herrmann is quick to remind everyone that the player is still very raw, lacking a bit in athleticism and mobility.
“I think I’m one of the few that realizes basketball is just a game,” Marcus said. “It doesn’t run my life, but it is part of my identity. And if I can excel at this – and I do want to excel in the NBA – then I will do it.”
“I’m proud of what I’ve done here in college, but I want more. I want a good showing in the NCAA tournament. I want everyone to know about Western Kentucky.”