Who says power plays are just for hockey?

Jeff Ruland knows better. The UDC coach had to play Saturday’s game with only five players — or fewer. And, he says, that’s likely the lot he’s stuck with for the rest of the season.

With only a minute gone in the second half and 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 man and 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. He knew UDC only had four players who could play. Ruland learned days before the game that, because of injuries and defections, the Firebirds would suit up only five players against Apprentice.

So when Rollins went down, and Ruland couldn’t instantly heal his player’s bad wheel with a laying on of hands, 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 well over two hours.

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, things aren’t looking up in the short term.

“I’ve got those five,” he says, “That’s all I’ve got.”

Ruland, who was an assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers last season, says he knew things would be tough when he took the head coaching job at UDC this summer, a week before school started. UDC once was among the strongest NCAA-Division II programs, winning the 1982 national championship with a roster that included future NBA first round pick Earl Jones and second-rounder Michael Britt.

But UDC basketball has been awful for years now, and won’t be off NCAA probation for old violations until next year. Ruland took a job nobody else wanted. 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 was prepared for all the losing: 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. 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. Munson watched the Apprentice game from the UDC bench, dressed in street clothes and with his arm in a cast.

Ruland appeared to already be looking forward to next year during Apprentice’s power-play game. “No fouls! No fouls!” he yelled at his team in the final minute.

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 the current student body to help out Ruland with 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,” he says, “and a lot of tape.”


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