Jeff Ruland stays optimistic though his UDC team has just five playersJeff Ruland stays optimistic at short-handed UDC

"I took this job for a challenge," former NBA player Jeff Ruland says. "Boy, I'm getting it." (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

There's a leaner Jeff Ruland stalking the sideline at the University of the District of Columbia. The Firebirds coach says he has dropped about 15 pounds in the last month, and one can't help but wonder if the weight loss is because of the stress caused by a trying season, or maybe he's had to take the court for practices because of UDC's diminished roster.

Actually, Ruland is on a diet, and though the 1,000-calories-per-day plan leaves the 6-foot-11 former NBA all-star starving, he is sticking with it -- just like he is sticking with the Firebirds even though their roster is about as lean as his meals.

UDC, which is 1-18 after Saturday's 60-53 loss to Central State, has had only five healthy, eligible players for four of its past five games. In one game, the Firebirds went several minutes with just four players on the court because one of the five injured his ankle.

"I think I'm going to wake up one day and find it's all been a dream," Ruland said. "It's a challenge. I told you I took this job for a challenge. Boy, I'm getting it."

Ruland, who was hired at the Division II school in late August, barely had time to bring in players for this season. He held open tryouts and added enough walk-ons to hold five-on-five scrimmages during practice. But then one of the walk-ons left the team after two practices, and UDC was down to nine players.

Two players were later declared academically ineligible. Nigel Munson, the team's leading scorer (19.2 points per game) and captain, broke a bone in his hand seven games ago. Dyrek Jones, the team's tallest player (6 feet 7) and leading rebounder (7.5 per game), injured his foot and hasn't played the past six games.

"It's been frustrating," Ruland said. "But the guys are doing what I ask them to do. They're giving me effort. In that sense, it's been rewarding."

The 40-minute five -- three walk-ons and two scholarship players -- have taken their situation in stride. Purvis Rollins, a 28-year-old Army reservist who served a tour in Afghanistan, is one of the three walk-ons who started the season on the bench and now plays the entire game.

"I went from me going a couple games where I didn't play at all to now I'm playing the whole 40 minutes," said Rollins, who played basketball at Einstein High School. "I'm kind of excited about that but at the same time I wish my teammates were still here because the last couple games were definitely winnable games if we had more players."

UDC has been surprisingly competitive this season. Two of the Firebirds' losses were in overtime. Eight of their defeats were by seven points or less, including a four-point loss to University of the Sciences -- one of the games they played with just five players. Still, with only one win -- a 78-68 victory over Cheyney on Dec. 29 -- UDC hasn't had much to celebrate this season.

The losses "wear on us, but we try not to dwell on it," said Kenneth James, a 22-year-old walk-on from Wakefield High School. "You've just got to play that game and look forward to the next one, try to get a win."

Practices consist of the five players running through their plays without defenders guarding them and three-on-three full-court scrimmages. One of the academically ineligible players can practice with the team, and Sam Shehadeh, a junior on the UDC soccer team who played high school basketball, recently joined the team.

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