GREENSBORO — Bryan Spencer says his Carver College basketball players “are no different than any other student-athletes across the country. They have the same desires, the same goals.”
But the Cougars’ season certainly has been different. A 22-game COVID-19-fueled sojourn that brings them to N.C. A&T’s Corbett Sports Center on Saturday has been one of historic futility. Carver has lost all of its games, including 17 to NCAA Division I teams by an average margin of 59 points.
The Cougars’ struggles have been documented in stories by the Associated Press as well as midmajormadness.com. Spencer and assistant coaches Jeff Daniels and Tony Kemp have tried to keep their team up and motivated through one of the most brutal stretches a college basketball team can imagine.
Carver has played all 17 D-I foes on the road, including six back-to-backs and a stretch in mid-December when the Cougars lost to Presbyterian 85-46, Georgia Southern 92-27 and Liberty 91-38 on consecutive nights. The low point might have been a 105-23 defeat at Appalachian State on Nov. 27.
But Spencer doesn’t see it that way.
“I’m not discouraged at all,” says the former Atlanta-area high school coach. “I’m optimistic for people to see what this team is going to look like at the end of this year and in the years to come. … I’m not down at all.”
It would be easy to get down about all of the challenges the Carver Cougars face. His players are students at a historically Black Bible college that has an enrollment of roughly 60. The basketball program gets no financial support from any shoe deal or even from the school, which is a member of the National Christian College Athletic Association. That’s NCCAA, not NCAA.
“We’re a self-funded program,” Spencer says. “We raise it ourselves.”
One way his Cougars raise the funds necessary to travel in two vans to games in cities as far away as Miami (Florida International) and Thibodeaux, La. (Nicholls State) is with the financial guarantees they receive. Carver typically gets a check for anywhere from $2,000 to $2,600, plus a postgame meal (often pizza), to give its opponent a home game.
What has made the Cougars such an attractive opponent, besides the near-certainty of a win? It’s their relative immunity to the coronavirus that has made this college basketball season one of constantly changing schedules.
Eight Carver players tested positive for COVID-19 during preseason practices. Once those players recovered, they didn’t need repeat testing for the coronavirus under NCAA guidelines for 90 days — a window that is still in effect. The other three players had health insurance to cover the required three-times-a-week testing, Spencer says.
That meant Carver could adhere to the protocols most Division I conferences have in place and fill in when other teams were not available. That’s how the Cougars ended up on A&T’s schedule. The Aggies were set to play MEAC foe Florida A&M on Saturday and Sunday, but those games were postponed because of COVID-19 issues in the Rattlers’ program.
So A&T is paying Carver $2,500 — and pizza — to make the drive up from Atlanta on Saturday morning.
“The biggest thing is our guys just need to be able to play in a game,” says Coach Will Jones, whose Aggies (5-9) last played Jan. 3, when they won 73-66 at S.C. State. “We’ve played enough competition that just being able to get out there and play a 40-minute game will help us continue to develop our chemistry.”
For Carver, it’s about the exposure of playing against a schedule made up primarily of Division I teams and the chance to build something for the future with a roster that includes nine freshmen.
Spencer says he tells his players: “Don’t get caught up in these scores. Everybody else might laugh at you and whatever, but we missed two weeks of practice.”
“For freshmen, that’s critical,” Spencer says, “and then you’re playing a D-I schedule.”
The schedule is part of a four-step plan Spencer has for building the Carver basketball program into one that will be known nationally for wins, not losses.
“When I took over, the plan was I know we don’t have great facilities or a lot of those things to offer like other schools have, so let’s have the most competitive schedule we can play,” the coach says. “That’s the draw and the attraction to Carver College. It’s not the buildings or anything else.”
The buildings are a former high school and elementary school that sit in a wooded area off Cascade Road on the southwest side of Atlanta. The blue-and-gold uniforms the Cougars wear don’t bear the logo of adidas, Nike or Under Armour. The school’s only three majors are business, psychology and, of course, Biblical studies.
But Spencer doesn’t think about those things. He thinks only about the fact that his players “have stuck together, and they haven’t lost faith or trust in the direction we’re going as a program, understanding that it’s a process,” Spencer says. “They’re at the beginning stages of the process.”
Contact Joe Sirera at 336-373-7034, and follow @JoeSireraSports on Twitter.