Until the night of Nov. 7, 2007, most college basketball fans didn't know Gardner-Webb from a weed whacker. But with a 84-68 thumping of Kentucky at Rupp Arena, the little school in Boiling Springs, N.C. was thrust into the national spotlight. It was the first major story of the 2007-08 season, the greatest moment in the seven-year Division I history of the Runnin' Bulldogs program; a team that had finished 9-21 a year before and picked eighth this season. In the days that followed, head coach Rick Scruggs was on every sports-related interview show you could name.It's been over two months since that landmark upset, and Gardner-Webb is once again just another mid-major program that's struggling hard to move above .500. Last Friday, we caught up with the Bulldogs, then 7-9 overall and 1-1 in the Atlantic Sun, at the home of new A-Sun member (and recent Division I newcomer) South Carolina-Upstate. On the strength of an overwhelming second half run, the Spartans came away with their first ever D-I conference win at the expense of the infamous Kentucky-beaters. Afterwards, Coach Scruggs was kind enough to share his thoughts about the unbearable lightness of unexpected SEC upsets, Australian recruiting, the right way to move up to D-I, and the lasting legacy of what happened at Rupp that magical November night.TMM: I don't know if any coach or any program this year has had the wide range of experience that you guys have, going from winning at Kentucky to losing to a transitional Division I program. What's this been like?RS:
It's been an emotional rollercoaster, as you can imagine. It's not been a fun ride either. We just don't know what to expect night in and night out. After the Belmont game [Jan. 3], we thought we were playing pretty good. We had a great game there at home, then we came in tonight flat. I mean, we practiced hard, we had a good shootaround earlier, all the players were keyed in, but we didn't play with any urgency at all.
We've had big wins, Kentucky of course, then the High Point win... we've had some amazing highs, and then we've had nights like tonight, where there've been amazing lows. I just don't know how to get them out of that pattern. We've just got to keep working.TMM: Over on ESPN.com, there was a recap of the first two months. And there was a picture of you guys, beating Kentucky. No question it was the defining moment of November, and it was the symbol to casual fans everywhere that college hoops season had begun. Everyone still remembers what you did.RS:
Yeah, I saw that. I think all that'll last through the year, anyway. I think every time Kentucky gets beat for the rest of the season, people will remember that Gardner-Webb beat them too. Up until the Kentucky win, we really were strangers to a lot of people.TMM: What's it been like since then? Are other teams bringing their A-games against you? I noticed that the Upstate fans tonight were chanting about Kentucky this and Kentucky that, have you guys been wearing a target since that night?RS:
We've said that we don't think the target will be off our backs until the second time we go through the league. Everyone's formed their own opinions about us. The thing that's defined us has been the Kentucky win. So I'm sure their preparations for us have a lot to do with that, and the fact that we beat Kentucky, and everybody wants to knock off the team that beat Kentucky. So we're getting people's best shots, and sometimes we've responded so well it's unbelievable. Other nights, we really haven't.TMM: After the Kentucky win, you lost eight out of 10 D-I games. Imagine for a second if the Kentucky win hadn't happened... do you think you might be better off now? That really did jolt the development of your team a little bit.RS:
I heard Jay Bilas say one night, when we were up in New York for the Coaches vs. Cancer final rounds, that we're a really experienced team. We have one senior! We're still a young team, we only have two or three juniors. And part of what we're going through is just growing up. We haven't really grown up or matured as a team, and we won't really do that until at least the end of this year.
The expectations really increased drastically when we beat Kentucky. And maybe they shouldn't have. Maybe it should have been just another game, one of those nights that everything fell into place. But we got really worn out. We went to New York afterwards... we played on the next Tuesday, the next Thursday, then Friday and back to Radford on Saturday. Four games in five days. Then there was all the media hoopla we weren't used to.
That's all a bad excuse, of course, but when we came back from Christmas, we were a lot more relaxed, a lot more at ease, more at home in what we were doing. Getting away from everything was probably the best thing we could have done, but we couldn't do that until the holidays. But then... then something like tonight happens, and we don't have an answerTMM: I don't want to be Mr. Doom and Gloom, focusing on the losses and the negatives. That's no fun for anybody. There are things that you guys do really well... great ball movement, high tempo, decent rebounding, and I've seen very few teams that share the ball as well as Gardner-Webb. Are those points of emphasis?RS:
This team is really unselfish. We don't have any guys who has to score the basketball or take a certain number of shots. We have a lot of guys who each can score 15 or 18 points on any given night. Rebounding has been an Achilles heel of ours, we've been doing it well because it's been a point of emphasis in our practices, but we've been going small in order to be able to go uptempo more.
We've done a great job on assist-turnover ratio. I don't know where we are in the nation [93rd
]. But a night like tonight, when we have 10 turnovers by halftime and six of those are unforced, that doesn't help our numbers much. The good thing about the Lipscomb game is that we made shots, and that's how we get assists. Tonight we didn't get anything out of transition and we didn't get into our break fast enough. When we miss a lot of shots like we did tonight, and we don't get the opportunities to do what we like to do, it's doubly frustrating. We were a step slow all night.TMM: Preparing for the conference move, going to the Big South next year... when you're recruiting, scheduling, putting your long-term plans together, is the new league in the back of your mind at all?RS:
No doubt. That's why we tried to play as many Big South schools this year as possible... we played Radford and Charleston Southern home and home, we played High Point...TMM: And you beat all those teams at least once.RS:
Yes we did. We wanted to see them play so we could get an idea of the style of play in the league, to see what we'll be facing. I know it's not going to tell us about everybody, but I think we've gained a good idea of what we have to do to be competitive in that league. And we're going to be pretty experienced going into the Big South. I didn't expect this team to have done some of the things it's been able to do, but that's all going to pay off in the future. But in the meantime, sometimes they're going to play young, just play bad, like tonight.TMM: Tell me about your Australian connections, you have three Aussies on the squad and have had multiple players from that country for years now. Like some schools out there like Nicholls State, Utah and Saint Mary's, you've really loaded up on Down Under talent lately. How do you do that? Do you bring them in, sight unseen?RS:
We started about nine years ago, we got some people who gave us some contacts down there, they said, "you gotta call these guys." So we called them, and we started to chart what they'd say. They'd say so-and-so would play at a high-major, or a mid-major, or so on... we started watching where they did end up going, so in time we knew which of the contacts we could trust. So one year soon later, we had an extra scholarship, and I said that I was going to get one of these Australian kids.
So I called our trusted contacts, I asked about Brendan Clowry. He was at the Australian Institute of Sport... that's a pretty good sign when they're there at the AIS. We got him to come up... he wasn't guarded or inhibited or anything, he just wanted to come up to the United States. Then, later that summer we had another scholarship available, we signed Tim Behrendorff, a 6-11 kid. Both those guys played, and started
, from the minute they got here. Were on the Dean's List and everything. That gave us an in, and we started bringing Australians in every year, or every couple of years, whenever we needed one.
I sent one of our assistants down there one summer to spend a week to meet some of those people face-to-face whom we'd been talking to for several years. And so now when we call, they know us, and we don't have to recruit against quite as many people. And usually we get a good student, well-adjusted, they just want to play in the United States. They don't care if it's Gardner-Webb or Kentucky. They just want to come here and play.TMM: So what's been Australian kids' reaction to Gardner-Webb, to the town? Positive, negative?
We haven't lost one yet. Each one's stayed four years and thoroughly enjoyed it. Behrendorff met his wife here, he married the girl he met here, and he's playing in New Zealand professionally now. They live part-time in Australia, part-time in New Zealand, and part-time up here where she's from.
So [Australians] have done real well here. Their adjustment has been amazing. We have certain kids who, if they don't go home every weekend, it drives them crazy... but the Australians have adjusted so well to life up here, it's been incredible.TMM: Being here in this building, you know very well what this Upstate program is going through. Gardner-Webb did the Division I transition itself pretty recently, starting back at the turn of the century. Your program had it rough, there were some definite bumps in the road, what's been your journey through this D-I transition process?RS:
It was tough on us in a lot of ways, but especially because we didn't have a conference for a number of years. Once we got into the conference, they didn't give us a league schedule right away. We had to wait until the following year... Upstate and Florida Gulf Coast got a schedule right away once they joined the A-Sun. It was fun doing it, it was a long road, there were indeed bumps in the road, but I thought we went through it all relatively smoothly, considering all we had to overcome.TMM: I know you don't want to give advice to a school that just beat you pretty handily on the court, but what advice would you have for a program that's making the jump? What's the best way to handle the transition?RS:
You have to prepare yourself for losses. And you have to be selective, if you can, about the style of play of the teams you go up against. We didn't want to play certain teams while we were coming up because of their speed and pressure and such. For instance, we wouldn't want to play a team like the last few Florida teams, or Louisville, because of the way they press. We tried to play halfcourt teams. We studied that constantly... we wanted to play teams that when they'd beat us, it wouldn't be by embarrassing margins. We didn't want to see 40 minutes of you-know-what.
It's also good when the administration doesn't make you play too many guarantee games, you can certainly overdo that. It's best to play at least a few teams your own size, and we've certainly found that out even now. For the Kentucky win, we have two losses to Connecticut, Oklahoma, a loss to Tulane, we've got a loss to Charlotte. That's a lot of losses, and it hurts the team's confidence and our staff's confidence.
I'd tell any team making the transition, that you've just got to be patient, and keep heads up even when the losses mount. It's nothing you're doing wrong, it's just going to be like that for a while. You've just got to stay smart about your approach all the way through the process.TMM: One last one. Two months later, what's been the lasting impact of the Kentucky win on the town of Boiling Springs? Did it make the Christmas season a little more joyous?RS:
They're still talking about it. I was pumping gas the other day, and a guy came up and said, "Aren't you Coach Scruggs?" And I said, "Yes, sir, I am." And he said, "I just want to congratulate you on that win." And we'd just come back from splitting the Nashville trip, Belmont and Lipscomb, so I asked him which win. "Oh, the Kentucky one."
Last week, I was getting my hair cut about a week ago. A lady walked in and said, "Is that the man right there? The man that led the win over Kentucky?" It's amazing that it's continued like that. They'll be talking about that in town for years to come, it's such a big thing for our school. TMM:
That win, in some ways, is bigger than the combination of the 10 losses you've had this season.RS:
In a lot of ways, it is. But we're into league play now, and I want to do good in the league, and I've sorta gotten past it. But I'm not sure everyone else has gotten past it. We've always got that now, and I don't know if that's a good thing, really. Sometimes it's a bad thing... we beat Kentucky, but that's not going to get us in the Tournament, or win us three games in March, which is what we've got to do to get to the NCAA's.The rollercoaster season continued for Gardner-Webb. The Runnin' Bulldogs ironed out some of their inconsistencies from the embarrassing USC Upstate loss, to win at East Tennessee State two days later by a 73-69 count. On Friday, G-Webb lost to Campbell by 20.