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Carver College is trying to build a winner, even if you don’t see it yet

The Cougars have played 17 Division I opponents this year and have lost each by an average of 59 points. That’s only part of the story.

Jay Crain, Appalachian State athletics

Cascade Road in southwest Atlanta holds the usual necessities of the South. Along one stretch of the five-lane thoroughfare, there’s a Starbucks, Wendy’s, Publix, a couple banks, and a Chick-fil-A. Drive past the Chick-fil-A, across the overpass, and at the next left you turn on to Kimberly Road SW. Suddenly it’s like you’re plopped in the middle of the woods. You could be forgiven for missing the tiny campus that would come up on your left as you navigate back toward civilization. Even the Google Street View of Carver College looks like a postcard from the wilderness.

But if you peer through those trees, you’ll see Carver — the 60-student, historically black college, founded in 1943. It’s a bible college that weaves God into every aspect of its mission, urging Christian responsibility, service, and character. It sends its graduates across the globe to fulfill the calling of ministry they have been drawn to.

The school has a lofty mission and has graduated thousands of men and women, but you’ve probably never heard of it.

Unless you’re a college basketball fan. A big one. The kind that tracks scores of Ohio Valley games on weeknights in December. The college’s claim to fame this year has been unforgiving and understandable: Their men’s basketball team is the one that, seemingly every night for the first six weeks of the season, would play a Division I school and lose by about 60 points.

It was enough to garner a story from the AP, where they were called the Washington Generals and “a willing patsy.”

The results back that up:

Nov. 25: Kennesaw State 87, Carver 40
Nov. 27: Appalachian State 105, Carver 23
Nov. 28: Wofford 111, Carver 37
Dec. 4: Austin Peay 102, Carver 38
Dec. 6: North Alabama 107, Carver 40
Dec. 8: Charleston Southern 94, Carver 59
Dec. 9: The Citadel 102, Carver 51
Dec. 12: McNeese State 96, Carver 53
Dec. 14: Presbyterian 85, Carver 46
Dec. 15: Georgia Southern 92, Carver 27
Dec. 16: Liberty 91, Carver 38
Dec. 18: Georgia State 122, Carver 57
Dec. 19: Stetson 95, Carver 51
Dec. 20: Georgia Southern 119, Carver 43
Dec. 21: Florida International 111, Carver 34
Dec. 27: Jacksonville State 104, Carver 45
Dec. 28: Troy 88, Carver 35

That’s an 0-17 record against Division I competition over the span of just over a month, with an average margin of defeat of 59 points.

It begs the question: What the hell is Carver doing, anyway?

“We’re not looking to be portrayed as some clown team that just shows up and gets blasted every night,” head coach Bryan Spencer told Mid-Major Madness.

Calling Carver the Generals ignores key parts to the story. There is the financial aspect, without a doubt. One of the few constants in college athletics is that small schools always need money, and they can collect a paycheck by letting a larger school “buy” a home game against them. As of publication, Mid-Major Madness has acquired four game contracts for Carver’s contests against Division I opponents: Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, and Appalachian State. For each of those, Carver received a guarantee between $2,000 and $2,600. Every school also provided the team with a postgame pizza meal.

The Carver basketball program does not get any funding from the school and needs to raise money entirely on its own. The school doesn’t even supply COVID-19 tests for its players. Instead, players use their own insurance at a facility near campus.

Still, by talking to Spencer, you get the sense that they’d play these games even if there wasn’t a dollar in it for the program.

Spencer is a coach seemingly without an off switch. He’ll talk up his team for hours on end if you let him, in between stories about his youth, his father, or the history of Carver College. It’s the same passion he shows to his players every day.

“He’s like a father figure to a lot of us,” junior Glenn Sims said. “We can talk about anything. What’s going on in our life, girls, financial troubles, just anything. He’s a father figure for a lot of people who don’t have one.”

What you’re seeing on ESPN+ every night while the team loses by 60 is Phase I of a four-part plan that the fourth-year head coach has implemented.

PHASE I: Improve the schedule

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Carver plays in the south region of Division I in the National Christian College Athletic Association. While most NCCAA schools are dual-affiliated, either with NCAA Division II or NAIA, Carver is not. It plays an independent schedule, which in 2020-21 means barnstorming the Division I mid-major world in the first semester and scheduling NCCAA schools on an independent basis in the second semester, perhaps with another Division I game or two sprinkled in.

With 22 games from Nov. 11 to Dec. 28 and 17 against Division I teams, Part I has been accomplished and then some. It’s an opportunity for the players to perform on the sport’s big stage.

“Everybody thinks they’re [a Division I athlete],” Spencer said. “Well, this is the opportunity to play D-I basketball. You think you’re D-I? Well, here it is. This is what it looks like.”

There’s a story that Spencer likes to tell his team.

When he was four years old, his family would play croquet every evening after dinner. With older brothers of eight and 11, he would lose. Not only that, he says, his parents and siblings would be done with the course while Spencer would still be struggling at the beginning.

“I couldn’t take it,” Spencer said. “At four years old, I hated losing.”

So, one day, as soon as his father, William, left for work, Spencer went out to the course to practice. He was still going when his father got home. The four-year-old taught himself the basics of croquet and how to properly read the terrain of the course.

After dinner that evening, the four-year-old won.

It doesn’t matter whether the story is true — every player on his team has heard it and when talking to his players, they echo the same refrain. Not only do they want to play Division I teams, but they think they can win. Even after losing by 50-plus points multiple times.

PHASE II: Improve the talent base of the program

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Spencer’s strategy to reaching Part II has been to lure talent with Part I — to give players who think they can play Division I basketball the chance to prove it. This is still a work in progress.

Paul Hepburn, the team’s 6’9” starting center from the Bahamas, notched the first double-double of his career (18 points, 11 rebounds) against Stetson. He says the schedule was a serious factor in choosing where to go to school.

“With the teams we play, I thought it’d be good,” he said. “It’s a good experience for me and the team. It’s a good opportunity every night.”

Yet while the aggressive schedule played a role in getting Hepburn to campus, Carver is still 0-22 and lost those five games against its peers by similarly overwhelming margins. Its closest game was a 78-49 loss to University of Mobile.

Carver might not be ready to win games just yet, but there are good reasons why. The team relies on seven freshmen and just a couple of upperclassmen. Spencer wanted to bring in three additional players from overseas but could not due to the pandemic. Another byproduct of the pandemic was a weeks-long pause in the fall that prevented the team from practicing together.

In all, eight players tested positive. Once the season started and the Cougars were playing every couple days, the opportunity for on-court instruction disappeared.

Carver was able to use its run of positive tests to its advantage. Those Division I games all came with the 90-day window in which players who tested positive don’t need repeat testing, per the NCAA’s guidelines, as long as they are not showing symptoms. This means just a handful of players have to go across the street to test.

Once the team got the go-ahead to continue play, Spencer began scheduling games like crazy, though he’s careful to mention that everything added to the slate was with his team’s approval.

“We haven’t played a game yet that we haven’t wanted to play,” Spencer said. “I always consult my guys.”

With only the benefit of watching the games that ESPN+ has available, Carver does not look like a team that rolls over for its opponents. They play hard and do what you’re supposed to — they box out, set good screens, and generally run their stuff. There’s just a litany of unforced errors and physical mismatches scattered in between.

As Spencer continues to try to bring in higher-level talent with the allure of playing a Division I schedule, the focus for the players there now is to get in the weight room. They might not be able to close the gap completely between themselves and the top college players in the game, but they can inch closer, and in doing so start to close those blowout margins.

“These teams aren’t running stuff that is so sophisticated that we can’t cover it,” Spencer said. “If they’re making shots, they’re bigger and stronger and get the offensive rebound. It’s not so much that we’re out-matched schematically. It’s just that they’re physically more dominant.”


Jay Crain, Appalachian State athletics

Carver hasn’t come close yet and you can’t sugar-coat it when the Cougars are losing to their peers by double digits as well. Ultimately, getting Carver to the point where it can win games will require Spencer to thread a difficult needle. He needs talent and that’s what he’s trying to attract with a Division I schedule. He’s targeting players with a chip on their shoulder — ones who have been passed on by bigger programs that think they can compete. The problem is, those players aren’t always the best fit for Spencer’s vision.

“I’ve stepped back from just worrying about talent,” Spencer said. “That’s the mistake I’ve made. Character matters. It’s cliché-ish, but it does matter. The person controls the player.”

Spencer cites the high school and AAU culture as one that leaves players with plenty to learn when they get to college. He needs players who are willing to learn the fundamentals, able to draw lessons from tough losses, and still have the drive to prove they’ve been overlooked.

He and his players can say all they want that they believe they can win every game, even while they’re losing by blowout margins. For now, though, it’s clear that they have to settle for the moral victories.

The team’s website hasn’t been updated since before the pandemic began and since then, it lost the strength and conditioning coach listed. It’s on the players to keep themselves motivated. Spencer stresses that becoming a better team can’t happen without becoming a better player, which cannot happen without becoming a better individual. It’s on his players to take that initiative.

“You don’t need to get a letter from Coach Cal or Coach K to bench 300 pounds,” he said. “That’s you. It has nothing to do with how high you are ranked in the country. That’s personal.”

Hepburn knows he has a long way to go before he can compete at a Division I level, and by getting stronger and working on his post game, he can help close the gap between Carver and the teams it plays.

“There isn’t a personal process right now,” he said. “We have a team process. Everything [Spencer] gives us to do, we try to execute it.”

Sims thinks the team is closer than the scoreboard indicates.

‘We’re just young right now,” he said. “We have size, athleticism. We just have to put it all together. Once we put it all together, games will look good.”

PHASE IV: Improve facilities

This goes further than refurbishing the gym or showing off a flashy new locker room to recruits. It’s about elevating Carver as a college. If Spencer can help do that through athletics — and yes that means winning some games, getting on TV, and more — then he will feel he has done his job.

Carver is partially an old elementary and high school and consists of just five buildings. Spencer admits it’s not “aesthetically pleasing” and that some who live nearby don’t even know the school exists.

The Cougars don’t wear Nike or Adidas, either. Gametime Hydration, instead, sponsors their uniforms, which on the road are blue with yellow and white trim. There’s no large number in front like you see on most jerseys, but rather the jersey number is in the upper left corner. Carver is written in giant letters across the front of the shorts. Unlike many D-I schools, they do have names on the back.

The players wear that uniform proudly, not just as representatives of the athletic department, but of the college. Sims, for one, takes pride in that hidden-away Atlanta college, and wants to share its values with the world during every national broadcast.

“At the start of the season, Coach Spencer made something very clear: that he wants us to show not that just we can play basketball at a high level but to empower the world through the way we play,” he said. “We want to show the world we can compete; we’re not going to be dirty; we’re not going to be ugly. We’re going to come out, spread love, spread positivity. Bring effort. Try to bring better publicity to Carver.”

That doesn’t happen on the scoreboard. Not yet. It happens through players like Sims and Hepburn talking about how important the college is to them. It happens through Spencer talking about his former player, Quinton Dunn, who answered the call from his coach to drive this team to a game in Miami when they didn’t have a ride.

“Carver College is life,” Spencer said. “In life, you’re not always going to get everything you need. You’re not going to have all the resources, money, car, a house. The roof in your house might be leaking. But regardless of all the things you don’t have, you still have to get the job done.”

Spencer and his players are trying — overmatched as they may be — to do that. It just hasn’t been pretty on the court.