As losses go, none have been more painful for Sean Woods than the one he says he's reminded of at least once a day despite the fact it happened almost two decades ago.
Strangers will recognize Woods, now the men's basketball coach at Mississippi Valley State, and ask him about his role in what many consider one of the greatest college basketball games ever. Back then, Woods was one of the senior stars dubbed the "Unforgettables" on a Rick Pitino-led Kentucky team that helped put a powerhouse program back on the map.
For a few moments on March 28, 1992, in Philadelphia, Woods was a hero. His one-handed floater from 10 feet went over the outstretched arms of Duke's Christian Laettner, bounced high off the glass and fell through the hoop to give the Wildcats a one-point lead with 2.1 seconds left in overtime. But that clutch play became a side note when Grant Hill heaved "the pass" that landed in the hands of Laettner, who made "the shot" at the buzzer that gave Duke a 104-103 NCAA tournament victory.
The team Woods will lead into the Kohl Center for a non-conference game against the University of Wisconsin at 4:30 p.m. today is about as far as you can get from Kentucky on the college basketball food chain.
The Delta Devils of the Southwestern Athletic Conference — the SWAC, as it's called — are 1-9 this season and 30-76 in Woods' three-plus seasons in charge of the program.
The defeats have taken a toll on Woods. If that loss to Duke almost 20 years ago was a knockout punch, then these losses at Mississippi Valley State are more like a series of body blows that have left him with wobbly knees.
"It's frustrating," he said this week. "It's humbled me. It's taught me how to be patient. It's definitely taught me how to be a better coach under these distress situations. When I do get another job, I'll be that much better. There's not too many schools in the country that have the problems that we have."
Woods isn't exaggerating. The game against the No. 13 Badgers (10-2) will be the 11th of the season for the Delta Devils. None of them have been on Mississippi Valley State's home court on the school's campus in Itta Bena, a small town in the northwest part of Mississippi far removed from any big cities.
By the time they play their home opener Jan. 3 in a SWAC game against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the Delta Devils will have played 12 games in 11 cities that are a combined 7,850 miles away from the Mississippi Valley State campus.
Some perspective: UW's three trips this season have taken the Badgers a combined 1,175 miles away from the Kohl Center.
So why does Mississippi Valley State do it? It has to in order to survive, Woods said.
"There's no money, so we have to go out and generate money through these guarantee games just so I can stay afloat and get through a year," said Woods, whose team had to practice in a middle school gym 20 minutes from the Mississippi Valley State campus for three months last season because a leaky roof in the Delta Devils' home arena ruined the floor.
"These games have to pay for scholarships, these games have to pay for travel. Our football program doesn't bring in hardly anything, so we have to help support the athletic department, too."
The annual operating budget of Mississippi Valley State's athletic department, according to interim athletic director Donald Sims, is $4.2 million. That's less than five percent of UW's $88.368 million budget.
But UW and Mississippi Valley State are perfect dance partners in what has become a financial waltz between the haves and have nots in college athletics. The Badgers need opponents to fill a schedule that includes nine revenue-producing non-conference home games, and the Delta Devils are happy to take UW's money to support their own cause.
In college athletics, these are called "buy" or "guarantee" games. In this case, Mississippi Valley State will receive $95,000 for making the trip to Madison. Expenses such as travel — the Delta Devils fly commercial, not charter — hotel rooms and meals take a bite out of that check, but it's still a lot more than Mississippi Valley State would make for a home game.
For his part, Sims says it's not all about the money.
"First and foremost, it gives our student-athletes opportunities to play against the best talent in that sport on a national level," said Sims, who has been at Mississippi Valley State for 27 years, including the past five in his current position. "It helps to promote our institution. And one of the perks is it supplements our budget."
Defeated and deflated
There are other perks. Woods says the tough non-conference schedule is a "big-time recruiting tool" because he can sell the opportunity to play in great venues across the country. Plus, the better the opponent, the more likely NBA scouts will show up to watch.
There's also the exposure Mississippi Valley State gets from playing several games on television — today's game will be televised by Big Ten Network — and the fact that stiff competition should help prepare the Delta Devils for league play.
But the road to the SWAC is paved with lopsided defeats. Seven of the Delta Devils' losses have been by 20 points or more.
"I don't care who you're playing, losing's not fun at all," said Woods, whose team has played the sixth-toughest schedule in the nation, according to the Sagarin ratings. "You can say, `Well, we're playing against the toughest teams in the country, the toughest places in the country to play.' But it's still a loss.
"We're just trying to hold on and get better game by game so when we do get in our league, our experience playing these games can (pay off). We think we can benefit from it. But it's tough. It's not fair. It's not fair to my kids. And it's not fair to me as a coach."
Woods said he doesn't see things getting easier for the Delta Devils anytime soon, particularly since budget cuts in Mississippi left the financial situation even more dire for small programs such as Mississippi Valley State.
Sims, meanwhile, has a more optimistic view on the school's lot in life.
"I tell my coaches that money dictates a lot of things, but it doesn't dictate everything," Sims said. "If you put a North Carolina budget against a Butler budget, does that mean Butler isn't supposed to win against North Carolina?
"Every coach would like to have everything they want, but that's not the real world. I know we need a lot of things, but I've also seen teams and schools with a lot saying they need more."