Marcus sitting the bench indefinitely

Kyle Hightower

When Chris Marcus decided the NBA could wait this summer, he made Western basketball fans as giddy as kids on Halloween night.

And it was a true trick or treat deal.

The treat obviously was the return of the 7-footer to an already veteran-laced Hilltopper team, leaving basketball candy images dancing in the heads of Western faithful.

The trick, however, was that they wouldn’t be able to open any wrappers until mommy and daddy made a thorough inspection.

Mommy and daddy, in this case, are Marcus’ doctors and Western coach Dennis Felton, who have yet to say the ankle injury that sidelined Marcus for 17 games last season is fully recovered – that the monster center is fit to put on his No. 2 costume.

The big man had originally tabbed the season-opener at No. 1 Arizona as the goal for his return. But it may be weeks before he’s ready for the court.

“It all depends on his health,” Felton said.?”This has probably been the most frustrating year of his life.?If healthy, he is the best center in college basketball. But his entire future depends on his health.”

Marcus, an All-American last season and projected NBA lottery pick, returns not surprisingly as a preseason Wooden and Naismith Award candidate. Marcus’ potential to dominate apparently looms larger than his absence. He was voted Sun Belt Preseason Player of the Year by the league’s coaches.

Not bad for a guy who thus far in practice sessions has been reduced to stretching, a few wind sprints and riding an exercise bike. Meanwhile, new Florida State transfer center Nigel Dixon talks trash about how he can push Marcus around in the paint.

“It’s frustrating,” Marcus said. “I haven’t played basketball in five months or so. It feels more like a year.”

Felton says the addition of the 6-foot-11, 350-pound Dixon has given Marcus an off-court friend. He’s also somebody to bang with Marcus in practice while Dixon waits for his eligibility next season.

“Nigel doesn’t have any problem expressing himself,” Felton said. “They talk trash, but it’s in fun. In years past, we haven’t had anybody that could compete with Chris physically, and Nigel can definitely do that. It’s good for both of them.”

But regardless of how long Marcus’ absence lasts, he says he still feels his decision to postpone entering the NBA was the right move.

“There’s no 18 hours of classes to worry about like there used to be,” Marcus said. “I used to get bogged down with class and basketball sometimes, but now it is really just about basketball. I am going to be able to work just on refining my skills, and I look forward to that.”

Unlike when he first arrived on the Hill and lacked solid fundamentals and passion for the game, Marcus misses being on the court everyday.

“When Nigel was in there, he was getting every rebound and I was just thinking, ‘Man, I can’t have that,'” Marcus said last month. “That’s my drill. That’s my bread and butter. To see him grab all those rebounds like that just makes me want to get back in there even more.”

The team proved it could win without Marcus a year ago, going 15-2 in his absence. Now the Toppers will have to do it again – but they hope it’s not as long as last time.

While former freshman center Michael Doe was still on campus, Felton paired him with Marcus, who he hoped would serve as Doe’s mentor.

Having faced similar situations in their basketball careers – neither initially crazy for the game – Felton hoped Marcus could help Doe adjust. But Doe never did. He left this fall to pursue academic interests.

Marcus said he applauded Doe’s courage but hoped he would have stayed, just as Marcus did when he was once unsure if he belonged in Hilltopper red and white.

Now the man in the middle has grown quite fond of his jersey, his Hill and his game. Marcus sees his injury recovery as another learning experience.

“It’s frustrating, but the best thing for me is not to rush myself,” Marcus said.