VANCOUVER — Conor Morgan has a bright future ahead of him when it comes to the prospect of making a healthy living playing the game he loves.
UBC Thunderbirds’ fans, in fact, may be surprised to learn just how close the nation’s second-leading scorer came during the off-season to hanging up his blue-and-gold jersey in exchange for a lucrative professional basketball career overseas.
“I was definitely thinking about it and at one point I was 100 per cent sure I was going to go,” the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Morgan said Tuesday morning, reflecting back on a confluence of factors in the early part of the spring which included multiple expressions of interest from pro teams, and shocking ouster from the Canada West conference playoffs at the hands of the Manitoba Bisons, a series in which he played despite a severely sprained ankle which had rendered him a shade of his normal self.
“It was keeping me up at night,” continued Morgan, the former Victoria-Mt. Douglas product who last season averaged 23.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. “Basketball is everything to me. I talked with my mom a lot about it, about what has made me happy, and for the last five years, UBC has made me happy.”
And so during an offseason in which one huge high school signing has seemed followed another, it looks like the ‘Birds most significant act was to simply bring back their leading man.
“Obviously, when he gave me the news a few weeks back that he was going to be coming back, it was a huge relief,” said UBC head coach Kevin Hanson. “He was our biggest recruit for next season.”
THE IDES OF MARCH
As far as timing goes, the ankle injury suffered by Morgan at the end of the Canada West regular season couldn’t have been more ill-timed.
The Bisons were peaking at just the right time, and Morgan, a true Euro-style talent, almost Nowitzki-like at the U Sports level, was so hindered by his injury that he basically became just a spot-up shooter.
If not for the constant attention over 11 straight days of care by physiotherapist Marc Rizzardo, Morgan doubts he would have even set foot on the floor for what turned out to be a two-game sweep at home in which he averaged just 13.5 points and 5.0 rebounds over 29.5 minutes per game.
“I was trying to hide it at the time, I was telling people I was 90 per cent,” remembers Morgan, who two weeks ago graduated with his degree in kinesiology, “but it is the worst ankle injury I’ve ever had. It still hurts and I am still doing physio. I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do, but none of this is an excuse.”
Added Hanson: “They said it was six-to-eight week injury and he played on the ninth day. I left it to the trainers and the medical staff and they said it was a go. At the time, we didn’t know if it was going to be Conor’s last year with us, and at the same time he really wanted to play with Jordan.”
There was no questioning UBC’s talent even without Morgan, the nation’s leading scorer until the final week of the regular season.
Yet the timing of his injury, and the domino effect put into play when a multi-skilled lynchpin was pulled from the schematic was quite obvious.
What was also apparent was that Morgan didn’t want his UBC basketball career to end on a note sour enough to rival the ‘Birds 80-62 ouster to the Cape Breton Capers at the 2006 CIS nationals, a loss that came on the heels of a perfect 20-0 Canada West campaign.
And so he is back, sans fellow generals Jensen-Whyte and Will Ondrik, as the unquestioned leader of a team with more than enough resources to reverse their history.
“I still haven’t gotten over it (the Manitoba loss), even thinking about it now hurts,” says Morgan, who has returned to his summer bartending gig and is set to enter studies towards a master’s degree in human kinetics in the fall. “It’s just not the way you want to end a career.”
THE NEW ‘BIRDS
Stare down the ‘Birds 2017-18 men’s basketball roster and it doesn’t blink back.
The guard rotation looks seven-to-eight deep, but one of those players has to step forward and try to bring what Jensen-Whyte did so masterfully over his career.
The front court, with Morgan, is also an imposing group.
In fact UBC’s roster is deep enough and mature enough that prodigious young talent will have the perfect opportunity to jump out of the nest and test the waters with greater confidence.
Listen to Morgan and he sees the group more than the individuals, and like a veteran leader should do, he draws a line between what currently exists on paper and what he hopes will unfold once the workaday schedule of camp hits full cycle.
“I think we have a lot of work to do next season,” Morgan begins. “August, September and October will be big months for us because we are a young team.
“When you’ve got a lot of veteran guys, you know you can just flip a switch. The young guys don’t know yet when to turn it off and when to turn it on. And what I’ve seen from past experience, myself included in there, high school guys don’t know what defence is like at this level yet.”
Before all of that happens?
Morgan will continue to rehab his ankle, and then later this summer, both he and Hanson will get a chance to represent their country at the FISU World University Games in Taipei as respective player and head coach.
Hanson will lead Canada into its training camp stateside on the campus of Purdue University beginning Aug. 6, play a pair of exhibitions against the Big 10 Boilermakers in West Lafeyette, Ind., Aug. 11-12, then take the team to Taipei.
The Calgary Dinos’ men’s head coach Dan Vanhooren, along with Jacques Paiement, Jr. of Laval’s Rouge et Or will be the assistant coaches.
“When you play for five years, it’s time to move on,” said Hanson of the U Sports eligibility window and the fact that Morgan will be playing his fifth campaign after taking one injury red-shirt season after coming to UBC in the fall of 2012.
“Conor wasn’t quite there and so this really justifies him taking one more year before moving on to another part of his life. He is going to make his money playing. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. We are going to have a great time bonding (at FISU) and then head into this bonus year he and I will have together in our program.”
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