Delta Devils peaking after tough start
For months, coach Sean Woods hauled his Mississippi Valley State squad to a gym 20 minutes away from its campus in Itta Bena, Miss. A leaky roof that damaged their home court forced the Delta Devils to find a temporary practice site for a chunk of last season.
The university couldn't afford an immediate replacement, so every day, players and coaches would jump into a couple of vans and make the trek to Threadgill Middle School in Greenwood, Miss.
Sometimes, they couldn't practice until the kids cleared the floor. The youngsters befriended the players and occasionally lingered on the sidelines to watch the sessions, enjoying their seemingly unrivaled access to a Division I college basketball team.
It wasn't ideal, but Woods' squad didn't have another option on its campus.
"I had to use their gym. A Division I institution had to use a middle school gym. How about that?" Woods said during a recent interview with ESPN.com.
In a college basketball climate that's turned the practice facility into a commodity, Mississippi Valley State had to prepare for games in a middle school's gymnasium, illustrating the chasm between Division I basketball's haves and have-nots.
By affiliation, the Delta Devils are Division I. But few other signs buttress that concept for the historically black college. Like other financially strapped HBCUs, Mississippi Valley State operates on limited resources and finances. The school faces tremendous day-to-day hurdles.
The athletic department's orthopedic doctor is available only on Tuesdays. So if a player gets hurt Wednesday, he has to wait nearly a week to see him. One trainer services the athletic department's 18 teams.
Only two of the six rims in MVSU's gym stand 10 feet above the court. And for part of this season, the Delta Devils didn't have access to a locker room. Woods is also dealing with a two-scholarship reduction imposed by the NCAA last year because of substandard APR marks.
But money, or a lack thereof, remains MVSU's greatest problem.
Historically black colleges once recruited some of the top African-American athletes in the country, even years after desegregation in the collegiate ranks opened up new opportunities for athletes throughout the country.
Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice played college football at MVSU. Steve McNair, Earl Monroe, Althea Gibson, Walter Payton and Avery Johnson all attended historically black colleges, too.
But the growing disparity in resources -- MVSU's athletic department has a $4.2 million budget; the University of Wisconsin pours $88 million into its athletic programs each year -- has dramatically reduced the schools' swaying power over the last 40 years.
To remedy its athletic department's financial woes, Mississippi Valley State spent the first two months of the season on the road, where it earned more than $800,000 (nearly 20 percent of the school's athletic budget) in guaranteed money. The Delta Devils didn't play their first home game until Jan. 3.
The athletic department's financial challenges are an extension of the university's. In 2009, in light of declining enrollment, then-Mississippi governor Haley Barbour pushed for the merger of Alcorn State, MVSU and Jackson State, a move he said would have saved the state millions of dollars.
"It is necessary that based on the economy and based on the budget that we have to work with, we have to find unique ways of being able to sustain our program," MVSU interim athletic director Donald Sims said. "That's one of the ways that not just Mississippi Valley, but a number of HBCU teams, we make our revenue through those guarantee games, those preseason games."
But players do not complain about the hours they spend away from home. Neither does Sims, who promotes the recognition his school obtains when it plays some of the country's top programs on national TV.
"It brings a priceless opportunity to you to be able to showcase your university in a national setting," Sims said.
The team's 1-11 start, in which it played 12 games in 11 cities, included losses at Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Iowa State and Notre Dame. That brutal stretch served to strengthen MVSU's resolve as it entered SWAC play; the Delta Devils are 17-0 in conference action, 5½ games ahead of second-place Southern and Texas Southern. Their current winning streak is surpassed only by No. 1 Kentucky, winner of 20 straight.
The Delta Devils will be the favorites to win the SWAC tourney, which begins March. 7 in Garland, Texas, and represent the conference in the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
Their burdens -- playing away from home for months, financial challenges -- have made them tougher.
"We're playing pretty much with a chip on our shoulder every night, because the average Division I athlete don't have to deal with the stuff that we have to deal with. But we don't make excuses," said senior guard Terrence Joyner.
This is not how Woods envisioned his coaching trajectory.
Woods acquired fame as a member of Kentucky's "Unforgettables," a group of players who stayed in school for four seasons despite a two-year postseason ban that followed a major scandal in the early '90s. He scored 21 points and sank a 10-footer in the closings seconds of Kentucky's 104-103 loss to Duke in 1992, one that most remember for Christian Laettner's buzzer-beater that sent the Blue Devils to the Final Four that year.
Woods grew accustomed to certain comforts during his time at Kentucky that weren't readily available when he took the MVSU gig in 2008.
But Woods wanted to be a head coach after multiple Division I stints as an assistant.
"It was an opportunity to be a head coach. I had no idea that a Division I institution would have so many resource problems," Woods said. "This is unreal. You don't have the proper medical care. I've lost some players just because they couldn't do it. The guys who stayed here and believed in it, they've weathered the storm and this is where we are right now."
Woods said he's tried to turn some of the program's negatives into positives.
He sells recruits on the opportunity to compete against some of the best teams in the country on national TV. The scouts that could make their dreams of playing pro basketball a reality attend those games, too, he tells them.
But above all, he promotes himself and his vision.
Woods has a certain determination that helped him survive a 29-67 record in his first three seasons. The Delta Devils are 18-11 this season.
Woods said he's proud of his players' ability to thrive. But despite the success his program has achieved this season, Woods said his vision is long-term. He said he hopes to one day mold MVSU into the "Gonzaga of the South."
"It's been many sleepless nights. But I just kept the faith," Woods said. "And I wasn't going to let anybody deter me from being successful. And I learned that from Coach [Rick] Pitino. I want to see this thing through. I think I've proven to everybody in the country that I can coach. If you can get it done in a place like this, you can get it done anywhere."
Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN.
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