The names tripped off Mike Morgan’s tongue, evoking memories from another time in South Carolina’s basketball history – but the same place, Colonial Life Arena, where he’ll spend Saturday afternoon anchoring ESPN’s 3 p.m. telecast of the USC-Vanderbilt game.
“Renaldo Balkman, one of the most exciting to play for South Carolina,” Morgan said this week from Atlanta. “Tarence Kinsey, an underrated player who also made it to the NBA; Tre Kelley, the freshman point guard; Mike Boynton, the glue as a senior. Carlos Powell,” whose steal and layup to beat Auburn lives in Morgan’s memory.
The year was 2004, the Gamecocks en route to a 23-11 season and their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1998. Dave Odom was the coach, and USC’s radio voice was a 20-something who says he often pinched himself about rubbing elbows with veterans of SEC basketball play-by-play such as Georgia’s Larry Munson and Alabama’s Chris Stewart, both now deceased.
USC spent portions of 2004 ranked in the Top 25 – the last time a Gamecocks men’s basketball team had earned that honor, until Frank Martin’s current unbeaten squad climbed into that stratosphere. Fitting, then, that the same guy who covered the Gamecocks’ last Top 25 season returns to call the newest.
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Parallels are there, Morgan said. The 2004 Gamecocks, coming off a 12-16 season, were as surprising to fans and the rest of the SEC as Martin’s crew after last year’s 17-16 finish. “Like this team, they had been flying under the radar early,” he said. “No one saw it coming.”
As he’s followed this USC season – Morgan circled the Vandy game on his work schedule in November – he’s noticed other similarities. “Like 2004, this team gets after (an opponent) defensively,” he said. “That team was more pressing, full-court (pressure), while Frank’s team doesn’t do that as much in the 4-5 games I’ve seen.”
“Neither team had, or has, a blue-chip first-round NBA pick” – he says it’s early yet to know about freshman P.J. Dozier – “but the sum was and is greater than the parts.”
Morgan covered the Gamecocks until 2009. Then USC decided to make a change at the play-by-play position, and suddenly Morgan was at loose ends – though not for long.
He landed gigs doing Carolina Panthers preseason games, then with ESPN’s college football and basketball coverage. When the Atlanta Braves hired him to call spring-training games with Hall of Fame pitcher and analyst Don Sutton, he began taking a different view of the forced change in his career arc.
“I’d had a number of people, including Bob (Fulton, USC’s original “Voice”), who said, ‘I know you’re happy where you are, but you need to look at other things,’ ” Morgan said. The choice taken out of his hands, he now sees the moment as life-changing.
“It’s worked out as well as I could’ve possibly asked,” he said. “I had a great 10-year run (at USC, doing basketball, baseball and closed-circuit TV football), but there are very few radio voices at schools who, given the opportunities I’ve gotten, wouldn’t jump at it.”
This fall, Morgan called 18 college football games (and one NFL game) on TV and radio, capped by last week’s radio coverage of the Outback Bowl. His latest move, which could bring him back to Columbia more often, was to sign a multi-year contract with ESPN and the SEC Network, covering Wednesday (SEC) and Saturday (ESPN) basketball games.
It starts Saturday in what Morgan calls “the most anticipated basketball game in Columbia in 10 years. The USC basketball program had fallen on hard times, but they’re good now and fans are jacked up again.”
So is Morgan; this is a nostalgic step back in time for him.