Losing to win? That’s the strategy of one tiny Georgia college

·9-min read

Drive West on Cascade Road through West Atlanta, and the scenery abruptly begins to change. Chain restaurants, gas stations and big-box retail stores give way to towering pine trees and dense underbrush.

Shrouded behind the foliage a few tenths of a mile down the road is a tiny speck of a college marked by just a single easy-to-miss sign. The enrollment is fewer than 60 students. The five buildings on campus previously housed a Seventh-day Adventist grade school.

“I met a guy who drove past the school every single day for 20 years and never knew it was there,” basketball coach Bryan Spencer told Yahoo Sports.

And yet Carver College seems to be well known among prominent college basketball coaches throughout Georgia and neighboring states.

For the past two seasons, Carver has become college basketball’s most sought-after opponent for teams in need of a get-right game. The Cougars have shuttled across the South in two school vans, offering themselves up to higher-level teams with more talent and resources and enduring one emphatic beatdown after another.

In the past 13 months, Carver has played 34 games against NCAA Division I opponents and dropped all of them by an average of 56.5 points. The most lopsided of those losses were especially ugly: 105-23 at Appalachian State, 111-37 at Wofford, 111-34 at Florida International and 100-38 at Gardner Webb.

On Monday night, Carver’s women’s basketball program followed the lead of the men’s team and agreed to a game against Division I Georgia Southern. The Eagles emptied their bench and still clobbered the Cougars, 133-15, the second-largest margin of victory in women’s Division I basketball history.

Those cringeworthy scores beg the question: What is Carver thinking? Why would such a tiny historically Black bible college attempt to punch so far above its weight class? Carver, after all, is a member of the National Christian College Athletic Association. As in NCCAA, not NCAA.

The answer goes beyond the modest payout that Carver receives each time it faces a Division I opponent on the road. To Carver’s eternally optimistic men’s basketball coach, a schedule littered with such games is his best tool to elevate his little-known program from obscurity to prominence.

“In five years, we’re going to be one of the best teams in the state of Georgia,” Spencer says with the conviction of someone who expects to do the unfathomable. “It sounds crazy to everyone else, but I truly believe that.”

Bryan Spencer, center, head coach of the Carver College talks with his players before their game against Florida International Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Gaston De Cardenas)
Bryan Spencer, center, head coach of the Carver College talks with his players before their game against Florida International last season. (AP Photo/Gaston De Cardenas)

Thinking outside the box

Bryan Spencer probably wouldn’t be coaching at Carver if he hadn’t been late signing up his 9-year-old son for rec league basketball almost two decades ago.

The organizers of the league initially told Spencer there was no room for his son. The only way they would make an exception is if Spencer agreed to coach.

“That’s how I got into coaching,” Spencer said with a laugh.

The son of the first Black assistant football coach at Syracuse and Cornell quickly discovered that working with kids was also his calling. Spencer began coaching high school basketball in the Atlanta suburbs soon afterward. In 2009, he began the first of two assistant coaching stints at Carver.

“I couldn’t believe how much coaching did for me,” Spencer said. “You’ve got these young kids hanging on every word that comes out of your mouth. It changed my life. It made me aware of the influence I can have on people. I just fell in love with it.”

When Carver offered Spencer its head coaching job in 2017, he wasted no time accepting it. Carver’s skeleton staff and losing track record didn’t deter Spencer, nor did the lack of money to operate a basketball website or purchase even basic necessities. This was Spencer’s chance to walk in his father’s footsteps as a college head coach — and at an institution where, as a man of faith, he could feel comfortable praising God or quoting scripture no less.

Spencer’s immediate goal as Carver’s head coach was to recruit better players, but he was also pragmatic enough to realize that he didn’t have many resources to offer.

A winning tradition? Nope. Carver basketball had struggled for years.

State-of-the-art facilities? Uh, no. Many Georgia high schools had nicer gymnasiums.

Other frills? Ha. Nike and Adidas aren’t supplying Carver players with the latest swag. Spencer had to scramble to get this year’s Cougars outfitted by a fledgling Memphis shoe-apparel brand known as Grind City Kicks.

The way Spencer saw it, upgrading the caliber of opponents that Carver faced was the only recruiting advantage available to him. As a result, Spencer set out to massively strengthen Carver’s schedule, relying on the premise that players who didn’t receive NCAA Division I offers would jump at the chance to play a schedule littered with Sun Belt, Big South or Atlantic Sun competition.

“I knew the mindset of kids,” Spencer said. “Everyone wants to play D-I. Everyone thinks they’re good enough. If you can’t provide that opportunity, the next best thing is to play a D-I schedule. You think you’re D-I? Well, here’s your chance to prove it.”

Spencer implemented his new scheduling philosophy conservatively at first, attempting to set up games against five to seven lower-echelon Division I opponents per season. On Carver’s best nights, the Cougars stayed within 30 against the likes of Troy and Kennesaw State. On Carver’s worst nights, the margin ballooned to 139-51 at Georgia Southern or 118-44 at Nicholls State.

Spencer’s unusual approach to scheduling didn’t draw much attention until last season when the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc with college basketball. No longer was Spencer satisfied playing a handful of Division I games per year. He suddenly saw an opportunity to go even further.

Carver College gets in their van before heading back to Atlanta, Ga after their NCAA college basketball game against Florida International Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Miami. (AP Photo/Gaston De Cardenas)
There's no fancy travel for the Carver College men's basketball team. (AP Photo/Gaston De Cardenas)

Not the Washington Generals

With Division I teams scrambling to make up games canceled because of COVID-19 outbreaks, Spencer volunteered Carver to fill the void. He spread the word that the Cougars would eagerly fill an opening on any Division I team’s schedule on short notice in return for a few thousand dollars to cover meals and travel expenses.

“Once word got out,” Spencer says, “everybody started calling us.”

What made Carver such an attractive opponent was more than just the near certainty of a confidence-boosting victory. The Cougars were also able to adhere to NCAA COVID-19 guidelines because their players either had already tested positive within 90 days or had health insurance to cover the required three-times-a-week testing.

Carver convincingly lost all 19 games it played last season against Division I opponents. The discrepancy in resources would have become even more egregious had a potential matchup with Georgia not fallen through.

“They actually called us,” Spencer said. “Most of my guys are huge UGA fans, so they were really excited.”

Even without Georgia, Carver’s eye-popping 70-plus-point losses occasionally inspired ridicule. Last December, the Associated Press described Carver as “college basketball’s equivalent of the Washington Generals,” a label that Spencer takes personally and adamantly refutes.

Carver players, Spencer points out, devote hours and hours every week to staying in shape and getting up extra shots, to executing their sets and studying film. When the Cougars take the floor, they aren’t there to collect a check or stay close through the first TV timeout. They truly believe they can defy the odds and topple a Division I opponent.

“My guys are competitors,” Spencer said. “People think we’re playing these games just for the experience. Nah, man. We want to win.

Spencer also bristles at the perception that his players must be miserable suffering through so many blowouts. While the Cougars don’t leave the locker room smiling or giggling after losses, they do appreciate the opportunity to have their games streamed on ESPN+, to play inside 10,000-seat arenas and to challenge themselves against Division I competition.

“A lot of people ask why we put these guys through this,” Spencer said, “but these guys love it. Like they love it. My guys weren’t recruited by nobody. They don’t take these opportunities for granted.”

Last season’s Carver basketball roster included 11 players with eligibility remaining. Starting point guard and lone senior Glenn Sims headlines a group of seven players who returned.

And yet despite that returning nucleus, Carver still appears physically overmatched each time it takes the floor. Games still often get out of hand in a hurry despite the Cougars’ efforts to slow the tempo to reduce the number of possessions and to run crisp offense to avoid having to generate 1-on-1 shots.

In the opening minutes of Carver’s 95-36 loss at Liberty on Monday night, ESPN-plus analyst Paul Nazigan declared that the keys to the game for the Cougars were to “play hard and hope.” The latter quickly became tough for Carver as Liberty raced to a 26-4 lead before the game was 10 minutes old.

Undaunted, Carver players enthusiastically took the floor at Presbyterian two nights later, clad in their usual jerseys with words like “Courage,” “Excellence” and “Hope” where their last names would normally be. Of course, that optimism eventually gave way to frustration as the lowest-enrollment Division I college in the country cruised to a 98-33 rout.

Those scores can make it difficult to foresee Spencer’s vision for Carver basketball ever coming to fruition. How could an underfunded, hard-to-find bible college ever attract enough talent to compete with lower-tier Division I programs, let alone blossom into one of the state of Georgia’s top programs in the next five years?

Spencer, ever the optimist, doesn’t see it that way. He argues that his current team won’t look so overmatched against the Presbyterians of college basketball once his underclassmen pack on more muscle and gain more experience. And he is adamant that Carver’s ambitious schedule will help it attract some more accomplished recruits, maybe a high school kid who wants to prove he’s Division I-caliber or a transfer who wants to return home to the Atlanta area.

“I’m telling you, we’re going to get somebody,” Spencer said excitedly. “We’re going to get somebody that nobody thinks we can get.”

Once again, Spencer speaks with the conviction of a man who expects to defy insurmountable odds. He insists Carver is on a path to success, even if the scoreboard always seems to emphatically suggest otherwise.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting