Who says power plays are just for hockey?
Jeff Ruland knows better. The first-year men’s basketball coach for the University of the District of Columbia had to play Saturday’s game with only five players—or fewer. And, he says, that’s likely as many as he’ll play with for the rest of the season.
With only a minute gone in the second half and with UDC up by three points against visiting Apprentice School, a vocational institution in Virginia’s Tidewater region, Firebirds guard Purvis Rollins went down hard on a drive to the hoop. And he stayed down. Ruland was the first one off the bench to reach Rollins.
Ruland, a massive former Washington Bullets star, picked his player up off the floor before the UDC trainer even reached the scene and walked with Rollins to the sidelines. But Rollins was in no shape to go back in the game. As the refs whistled for play to resume, Rollins limped to a table behind the baseline, and Ruland sat back in his coach’s chair, a few of the not-many fans in the UDC gym yelled that the home squad only had four players on the court.
Ruland didn’t flinch. His rush to the fallen player, and his calmness as the fans screamed, soon made sense: There was nobody on the bench to replace Rollins; at that moment, UDC had only four healthy players who could go. His squad started the season with a roster of 10, but Ruland learned last week that, because of injuries and defections, the Firebirds would face Apprentice with five men at most.
So when Rollins went down and out, Apprentice got a power play.
His squad tried hard—even Rollins got his ankle taped and after several minutes limped back on the court and finished the game. But, even when all your players have two good wheels, college basketball at UDC’s level is tougher on undermanned squads than big-time college basketball would be: There are no TV timeouts at a Firebirds game. So when you play 40 minutes, that’s 40 minutes in a 90-minute span; a Duke-Maryland game can have a couple dozen timeouts and last two hours or more.
Playing four-on-five, the Firebirds’ lead turned into a double-digit deficit. Apprentice won, 70–60.
“[Rollins’] ankle was hurt already before he went down,” Ruland told me after the game. “But I didn’t think they’d let me start with four. He’s a tough guy, so he tried to play.”
And, he said, there’s no reason to think the roster will expand for the rest of the season.
“I’ve got those five,” he says, “That’s all I’ve got.”
This just in: The school has seen better days. The best came in the early 1980s. In the 1981–82 season, the Firebirds went undefeated at home and won the NCAA Division II national championship. The school made it all the way back to the title game a year later but lost in the finals. Those UDC teams were led by Earl Jones, a 7-foot center from Spingarn who would go on to be a first-round draft pick (and bust) for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Michael Britt, a 6-foot-7, 175-pound skinny leaper who couldn’t hang with the Washington Bullets after being drafted in the second round but later became known as the Flying Pencil during an overseas pro career in the Philippines and France. Both Jones and Britt made All-American teams while at UDC. Britt was recently written up in the Tidewater News, a publication near his Suffolk, Va., home, for coming back to the game of basketball at the age of 49 to play in a rec league at the local armory. (There was no mention of Britt’s rec team having trouble fielding a full team each game.) His alma mater hasn’t had an All-American player since he left.
At the time, the Firebirds were coached by Wil Jones, a D.C. playground legend in the 1950s who set scoring records at Dunbar and American University.
But UDC basketball, and the overall athletic program at the school, has been awful for years now. It hasn’t helped that the NCAA has put the program on probation multiple times for various rules violations. The latest came in 2008, when investigators found what NCAA officials later called “the single most egregious lack of institutional control ever seen” at a member school. A report from the journal Inside Higher Ed said that between 2000 and 2004, UDC allowed 248 athletes to practice or play while they were academically or otherwise ineligible to participate in athletics. The school’s now-former basketball coach and athletic director, longtime D.C. jock fixture Mike McLeese, was painted as the main villain in UDC’s alleged transgressions.
Bottom line: UDC won’t be off probation until 2012. So, a week before the current school year started, Ruland was offered a job nobody else with his credentials wanted. Ruland is a former coach at Division I Iona, where he took the Gaels to the NCAA tournament three times, and was an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers last season. He says he knew things would be tough when he took the UDC gig.
He had to fill out the roster with walk-ons—three of his final five players are walk-ons, Ruland says. Even the full UDC roster has no seniors and not a single player listed at center.
So he can’t be shocked by all the losing he’s overseen: UDC went into the weekend with a 1–14 record.
But he didn’t expect the shorthanded scenario. “I’d never had to play with four before,” Ruland says.
He’s not alone. When asked about the man-down episode, Terrell Stokes, a UDC assistant coach best remembered for his role on Maryland’s NCAA championship squad, says, “I don’t know what to tell you about that, brother. I really don’t know.”
“I never saw that in a game,” UDC guard Tim Ellison, a junior from Alexandria’s Edison High School, tells me. “Guess I better be in shape.”
But there’s always the future. Ruland says “five D-1 [caliber] guys,” including three transfers who have already played major college ball, will enroll at UDC this week and plan to be on his team next season. Ruland says that, per NCAA rules, he can’t disclose the recruits’ names until they’re signed. (If he wasn’t 6-foot-11 and 300 pounds and a former Bruise Brother, there’s a small chance I might have responded: “Rules? Coach, you’re at UDC!”)
He’ll also have well-traveled ex-DeMatha star Nigel Munson, who left Virginia Tech in 2007 and attempted unsuccessfully to transfer to George Washington. Everybody who saw Munson play in high school or in Blacksburg agrees he’d be starting at Tech if he’d only stayed. He was leading the Firebirds in scoring, with 19.2 points per game, before going down with a hand injury. He watched the Apprentice game from the UDC bench, dressed in street clothes and with his arm in a cast.
But before he gets to coach a full squad, Ruland’s got to play out this year’s schedule. The school’s athletic department is hoping to round up some able bodies from around campus to help Ruland and his five guys get through the remaining eight games. But in case nobody else walks on, Ruland’s figured out how he’s going to survive this season: “With the Lord’s help and a lot of tape.”
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