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

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010; D11

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.

In games, the players have to be cautious not to pick up silly fouls. They play a lot of zone defense and try to slow the pace of the game.

"You really have to pick and choose when you are going to play most aggressive and when you are going to back away and let a guy get a layup, especially in the first half," said Tim Ellison, a 20-year-old scholarship player from Thomas Edison High School.

Ruland, who coached six years at Iona, has been through tough seasons in the past. His Gaels began 0-22 in the 2006-07 season before finishing 2-28.

"It's different," he said of the UDC situation. "At least I had a full practice" at Iona.

Ruland remains convinced there are bright days ahead for UDC. He has brought in one transfer, Brandon Herbert, a guard from Binghamton who could have played this season but chose to preserve his two seasons of eligibility. Two more Division I players are talking with him about transferring to UDC.

"We are way ahead of where I thought we would be," Ruland said. "The guys we're involved with right now, if they all wind up coming, we'll be pretty good. We competed this year . . . with three walk-ons and a couple scholarship guys. Compared with what I have now and what I'm going to have, yeah, we're going to be really, really good."

These days, a slimmed-down Ruland looks like he could step back on the court for his former team, the Washington Wizards (known as the Bullets during his playing days). Of course, his creaky knees prevent him from entertaining any thoughts of taking part in one of his team's practices, let alone an NBA return. And aside from bemoaning the minuscule portions of his meals, Ruland doesn't spend any time grumbling.

"Hey, I've got to be positive," Ruland said. "I want them to be positive, so I've got to be positive. I can't go crying on someone's shoulders. It's not going to change it. It's going to change by what? Hard work, and that's what we're doing."

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