David Cloninger

The 1997 project and recalling that championship year

BJ McKie
BJ McKie THE STATE

We ran our look back at the 1997 SEC championship team today. It was a project I started on around Christmas and it was a lot of fun catching up with those guys.

What I remember about that team, and that year – the Gamecocks were just confident. Once they started winning, they seemed to know the breaks would go their way. So many of those one-possession wins where somebody would hit a layup or get a key rebound, so many of those answering runs every time an opponent would deliver a seeming knockout punch.

The noise at Frank McGuire Arena, the students stomping on those aluminum bleachers and folks slamming their chair seats into the chair backs … that din just stayed on the court. I miss those days – while Colonial Life Arena is an outstanding venue, it’s a venue, not a basketball court. The seats are too spread out and the student sections aren’t close enough to really make a difference.

I hate that the glory of that year will forever have Coppin State tied to it. It’s a harsh way to remember it, but that’s the break. It’s part of the history, which is why it will always be on every NCAA tournament broadcast when a 2 plays a 15 – what would make it a little easier to bear is if the Gamecocks are playing in the tournament the next time they show it.

I also remember how good SEC basketball was at that time. That season, the league got five teams in (in a bit of foreshadowing to present times, four lost in the first round). Kentucky is always going to be Kentucky, but the Wildcats were in the midst of playing for three straight national championships. They won in 1996, lost to Arizona in 1997 and won in 1998, after Tubby Smith left Georgia to replace Rick Pitino.

Georgia was a powerful team, winning 24 games that season. Ole Miss won the SEC West that year, led by Ansu Sesay and current Florida coach Mike White. The league was in a very good run of great performances in the NCAA tournament, even when not including Kentucky. Arkansas played for back-to-back championships, winning in 1994; Mississippi State went to the Final Four in 1996; Florida went in 1994 and would play for a title in 2000; the league was in a stretch of 12 straight years where at least five teams made the NCAAs every season.

THE 1997 TEAM

Obviously, there wasn’t enough room to get all of the team’s comments in the paper. Here are some of the highlights of what didn’t make the cut.

COACH EDDIE FOGLER

(Expectations after 1995-96)

“Common sense tells me that we had a lot of good players coming back so we should – you never know in coaching – we should continue to make progress in Year 4.”

(BJ McKie and Larry Davis)

“I think first of all, they had work ethic. They were winners. They were competitors, they were tough. And of course they were very good basketball players. Larry could really score the ball. He played out of position, we went three guards, but he could really score. BJ could not only score it, but he could take it to the basket, get fouled a lot, make big free throws. Both were willing defenders – not the greatest, but they got better.”

(On Hagen Rouse and the infamous team meeting after losing to Charleston Southern)

“Hagen had a lot of respect from the players. He wasn’t a very outgoing guy on the court, he was more outgoing off it. But leadership is crucial. The best teams I ever had always had good leadership. Also, when the head coach has to be the leader, A, it doesn’t work as often as when you have player leadership. B, it wears the ass out of the head coach when he has to coach and also be the leader.”

(How did he handle the 12-game win streak)

“Whether you win by 1 or lose by 1, you need to objectively view your team’s performance. That is really hard to do. I guarantee you, when a coaching staff goes into a film session after a one-point loss vs. after a one-point win, guys play better after the one-point win. And basically it might have been a bounce of the ball that beat you. I was probably brutally honest. I wasn’t a coach to sugarcoat it. But there’s also a fine line between being brutally honest and giving too much confidence and also killing confidence. I believe you have to be honest up front and tell the truth, but also paint a larger picture of what else is going on.”

(USC lost its only SEC game at Georgia. What happened?)

“I know two days later we beat a very good Cincinnati team.” (That game was at Cincinnati and the Bearcats were preseason No. 1. They had Danny Fortson, Kenyon Martin, Ruben Patterson and Darnell Burton).

(Did you sense any fatigue after the SEC tournament loss?)

“Our team that year, as good as it was, we didn’t have a lot of inside presence. Ryan (Stack) was more of a perimeter player and more of a facing-up guy, wasn’t a back-to-the-basket player. There were times where we could struggle a little bit … our guards, there was a lot of pressure on them.”

(Did you think USC was going to be a constant NCAA tournament team after the success in 1997 and 1998?)

“Making the NCAA tournament is hard. Just do the numbers – it’s 68 of 350 so it’s like 20 percent. I can remember that year, we had that great run going, then I looked at our schedule at one point, first or second week in February, going, ‘Holy s---, we could lose four in a row easily.’

“I thought we could continue to be pretty good, and of course we were the following year, then we started to dip. Recruiting, to sustain any program … got to have good players. We had a very good run here with South Carolinians (nine of 11 who played in 1996-97 were from South Carolina). If you can continue to coach great players, you will continue to have good teams. That’s a brilliant statement, isn’t it?”

ARTHUR CARLISLE

(Favorite memories)

“I would say, the guys on the team, just the brotherhood we had. All the guys -- Larry, BJ, Melvin, Will Gallman, Bud Johnson, all the guys -- we went in there and just played hard.”

(When did you know the game at Rupp was over?)

“When it went down to zero and we had the most points. Our mentality was, ‘Let’s just go ahead and play it out and it would be nice to beat them twice.’”

MELVIN WATSON

(What happened in the opener, against Virginia in Hawaii?)

“We got waxed really good. I think coming out in that first game, we all wanted to do more than we needed to. That game, I think I took 15, 16 shots, which was really uncharacteristic. We weren’t sharing the ball like we needed to. We got caught up in being on a national stage and wanting to prove we were legit. I still can remember that conversation – ‘We’re not there yet.’”

(After Rouse’s meeting, did it take effect right away?)

“It didn’t start right away … how it got rolling was effort. The Auburn game – the hustle and diving for loose balls.”

(During the win streak, you guys came from 16 down to beat Florida in the final five minutes, and you beat Alabama after losing to them in the NIT the year before)

“I remember I was awful. I was godawful in that (Florida) game. That group got it going with me on the bench. I remember getting in the game and just defending. We got a couple of steals, Larry and BJ got some 3s.

“(Alabama), I know that everybody thought I was thinking of the NIT when the ball ricocheted off my leg and out of bounds. It really wasn’t that. It was really just, I didn’t want to lose that game. We were playing well, plus it was a conference game and we were trying to keep pace. If we can give ourselves a chance to stay behind Kentucky, we’ll see what happens when we run into them. It was a simple high-ball screen, shot clock winding down. When I came off the screen, I saw a lane and just attacked. It really was kind of redemption.”

(What’s your favorite memory of the first win over Kentucky?)

“Every time it comes on Classic, I get a phone call, whether from an old teammate or family members, and they watched the whole game. Even some of the kids I coach now talk about that game.”

(Did you think USC had forever turned the corner?)

“I’ve always believed that the program had changed and we could get back to the Frank McGuire days. I thought we had the right guy there in coach Fogler. When coach Fogler resigned, I was really surprised. I was sad, to be honest. He was a guy that I would have loved to see finish his coaching career there. I thought he was great for the university.”

HERBERT LEE DAVIS

(Focus going into the postseason)

“I’d never experienced that, that much support. It was a different excitement, in Columbia, in South Carolina, the Gamecocks are finally winning. The atmosphere was big. I’m from a small town, and it’s hard to focus. But coach always brought it back to practice, always brought us back down to, ‘Hey, we got to win this next game.’”

(SEC tournament loss)

“We wanted to win the whole thing. We felt that we would be aligned with, I think, Kentucky. We were in that opposite bracket from them. That was tough. That was very shocking. We felt we had an opportunity to win the whole entire thing.”

ANTONIO GRANT

(His role after breaking his foot five games in)

“In the beginning, it was really frustrating. I knew after sitting out for a while, it’s going to take me time to come back in, get in shape. Once I mentally accepted that, ‘OK, I’m going to redshirt or whatever,’ it was a lot easier. Just being out there, I guess my role within the team was to practice hard and give the other guys a really good look and just to cheer the guys on.”

(First game against Kentucky)

“I was watching coach Fogler and coach Pitino, back and forth. I remember that slick hair, almost on one knee squatting down. Kind of like a sparring match.”

(Win at Rupp)

“We were in the locker room and I do remember coach Fogler saying, ‘Yeah, we could be co-champs, but (censored) co-champs. We want to win it outright!’ Everybody was on the same page. Nobody wanted to be co-champs. At Georgia, a certain official made a certain call, and coach Fogler told him, ‘You may have cost us the SEC championship.’

“When Rick was thrown out, he knew. To beat those guys, to sweep them that year …

Most of it was done in the locker room. You don’t want to celebrate out there.”

(Aftermath)

“I think part of it was when coach Fogler decided to leave the program. He had already started his mark there and everyone saw the progress. I think things were really looking up. Unfortunately, it’s a business.”

BJ McKIE

(The meeting)

“It made everything positive, but in the beginning, it was a very negative meeting. Guys pointed out what other guys were doing and what they weren’t doing to help the team in the best way, and it really was a difference-maker in our whole season.”

(Coppin State)

“I remember coach (John) Cooper, he was like, ‘Hey, those boys are going to be ready to play. They’re from Baltimore, they’re used to going against NBA guys, they’re not going to be scared.’”

(Aftermath)

“I am surprised that’s the only time we won, 20 years ago. But I think good things are happening for our program and good things will happen with our program. I feel real good about our program and where it’s headed.”

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