WSU can count on familiar face wherever it plays

02/20/2011 12:00 AM

02/20/2011 12:25 AM

For most fans, the Wichita State basketball experience consists of Koch Arena and a TV. The dedicated might make a trip to Omaha, or schedule an annual vacation to St. Louis for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.

Jon Markwell is seeing the rest of the story. Evansville's Roberts Stadium in its final days. Terre Haute, Ind., during a blizzard. Renovated SIU Arena. When Markwell returned to Wichita after Tuesday's game at Evansville, he passed the 20,000-mile mark for following the Shockers this season. Starting last season, Markwell, 64, has attended every Shocker road game. He drives to most. He flew to this season's games in Hawaii and at San Diego State.

"Last year, I thought it would be really, really cool if I could actually make it to every game," he said. "I thought I would try. It was so much fun, and I enjoyed getting to know the kids and the coaching staff."

Markwell, a North High graduate, moved back to Wichita in 2003 after living in Dallas for 15 years. He followed the Shockers even while living out of state.

"I always knew I would come back to Wichita," he said. "When I did, I wanted to reconnect with Wichita State."

When Markwell returned, he bought season tickets and eventually joined the Shocker Athletic Scholarship Organization board of directors. He started modestly — going to St. Louis and following WSU in the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

His job in risk management offered a flexible schedule, so last season he started driving. He makes each MVC road trip in close to 24 hours — leaving the morning of the game and driving back to Wichita after. Audio books fill a lot of the time. He just finished a 23-hour biography of Abraham Lincoln.

He thinks. He takes advantage of the time difference to talk to his mother, who lives in Los Angeles, on his cell phone. His wifed, Sheryl, makes a few of the trips.

"Sometimes I record things about my dad and people that I remember, because I don't want to forget," he said. "I like to drive, so it's not that big of a deal."

Markwell has retired, so he takes his time this season. He attends WSU's shootaround the morning of the game and usually stays at the team hotel. At first, he was hesitant to hang around the team, because he didn't want to be seen as an intrusive fan.

Now he's part of the scene at every road game, watching quietly during practice, wearing black and yellow Nikes and a Shocker polo shirt and jacket. After practice, he makes a three-pointer.

"I wanted to make a three at every venue," he said.

The biggest reward for him is getting to know the players and enjoying the funny moments that happen on road trips with a basketball team. He remembers riding the elevator with Shocker big men Garrett Stutz, J.T. Durley and Ehimen Orukpe. When the doors opened, a hotel guest looked at the size in the elevator and decided to wait for the next one. When the doors closed, Markwell and the players cracked up.

"I've had experiences on the road, where I've seen other teams and how they handle themselves," he said. "These young people are good examples for Wichita State. They're under control. They have fun on the road and goof around a little bit. But they don't do anything that's going to get the program in trouble. I love that about the kids."

The camaraderie impresses him, as well, especially on the road. He thinks the closeness and the leadership from WSU's seniors explain why the Shockers win on the road.

"They all seem to be buddies," he said. "They all seem to care about each other. There's not any individuals."

Markwell wants to keep his streak going as long as it's fun and the team is comfortable with his presence. He's only endured one scare while driving — his car spun around on an icy patch in Kansas City on I-435, a detail he neglected to tell Sheryl.

"It turned around going the same way, so I just kept going," he said. "That really makes her nervous, me driving. But I love to drive."

He puts in the miles for one reason — he wants the players to feel some of that support from Koch Arena.

"I want them to understand that there's lots of people who have to work and can't travel like I do," he said. "But they're listening on the radio and watching on TV, and they care deeply. I want to get that across, as much as I can, to the kids."

Back to the Valley — WSU's loss to Virginia Commonwealth on Friday makes it difficult to see the NCAA selection committee picking the Shockers as one of 37 at-large teams for the tournament.

WSU desperately needed a win over a top-100 RPI win. Instead, it dropped a fourth game at home. WSU is 2-5 against top-100 RPI opponents after the loss to No. 64 VCU. WSU dropped from No. 48 to No. 55 after the 68-67 defeat.

Most important, WSU is 0-2 against top 50 teams.

Cleanup crews were still working at Koch Arena while ESPN's Joe Lunardi moved the Shockers from his group of "last four teams in" the NCAA Tournament to the "first four out."

That's bad. It also means the Shockers remain in the conversation, so that's not all bad.

The Shockers can shift their focus to the only thing they can control — the MVC race and the MVC Tournament. Winning three games in St. Louis is WSU's sure path to the NCAA Tournament.

"We're still focusing on trying to get a championship," WSU senior J.T. Durley said. "We can still get our goal this year, by winning the regular-season championship and go from there and try to win... the tournament in St. Louis."

Healthy Hall — A health scare hasn't slowed WSU basketball signee Carl Hall.

Hall, a 6-foot-8 forward at Northwest Florida State College, fainted during a game in late January, never losing consciousness, and sat out two games while undergoing tests.

He returned against Chipola (Fla.) on Feb. 1. Before Saturday's game against Gulf Coast (Fla.), Hall averaged 17.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in five games since returning from the layoff.

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