photo courtesy UDC

The UDC Firebirds are 9-1, with the only loss coming last month to D-1 and Atlantic 10 squad Duquesne.

It’s not too early to start buzzing about a return to March mini-Madness: In 1982, UDC won a NCAA D-II national title with a team that was coached by Dunbar alum and local playground legend Willie Jones and featured a future NBA first round pick (Earl Jones of Spingarn) and a second-rounder (Michael Britt) on its roster.

UDC basketball had fallen a long, long way from those glories by the time Jeff Ruland arrived in 2009. The program had been hit with so many NCAA penalties, injuries, and transfers that the NBA veteran had trouble even fielding a full squad his first year as head coach.

I went to a UDC/Apprentice game in January 2010 and saw something that neither I nor Ruland nor, most likely, any of the other few dozen spectators in the UDC gym that day had ever seen outside of a pickup game: UDC played with only four guys.

The Firebirds had only five players eligible for the game, three of which were walk-ons, then lost a guard to injury in the first half. The squad spent the rest of the day playing four-on-five. The box-and-none defense was Ruland’s only option. It was a hideous display.

UDC got crushed.

After the game, Ruland, a local favorite from his days as a Bruise Brother with Rick Mahorn and the Washington Bullets, told me the five guys who started “are all I got” for the rest of the season. The athletic department shipped a soccer player over to add a body. The team finished with a 1-20 record.

But this year, Ruland’s got a quorum, and his roster is led by talent cast off from major basketball programs.

Nigel Munson, a former DeMatha star who played the 2006-2007 season at Virginia Tech and tried unsuccessfully to transfer to George Washington, is now a senior at UDC. He watched the infamous “Man down!” Apprentice game from the UDC bench, dressed in street clothes and with his broken arm in a cast.

The leading scorer is Brandon Herbert, a Baltimore product who left the troubled Binghamton University program in 2009 and was at West Chester for a time before joining Ruland at the Van Ness campus.

UDC hits the court again on December 30 at 2 pm at home against Dominican College.

Another sign of progress: Admission to the Dominican game, which was free back when the Firebirds were playing four guys at a time, will cost you $5.