Friday, January 17, 2014
It was gut-check time Thursday morning as Coach Buzz Peterson called his team into practice at 5 a.m. The sun hadn't risen yet but the bounce of the basketball could be heard echoing through an empty Trask Coliseum.
Peterson wanted to test the heart of his team at one of its lowest points of the season. Veteran point guard Ben Eblen was one of the first to show.
In less than a week, Eblen and his University of North Carolina Willmington (UNCW) Seahawks teammates will head to South Carolina to face the College of Charleston Cougars in what will be Eblen's final collegiate game in his hometown. But right now, the UNCW is working through an eight-game losing streak. So right now, instead of arranging homecoming plans, the veteran guard has drills to lead.
A man's game
Basketball has taken Eblen a long way from the concrete outdoor courts he grew up playing on at the Isle of Palms Recreation Department. Playing for two high schools and two universities, his path is rare but he credits the game for making a man of him the past eight years.
After a breakout freshman season at Wando High, he transferred to Florida Air Academy in Melbourne, Fla. Success struck early for him as the Falcons took home the 3A state championship in his first season with the team.
“In hindsight, moving there was one of the best decisions I've made,” he said. “My mother wanted me to step out of comfort zone and challenge myself instead of sitting back and doing everything the same way. I didn't want to go at first but it turned out to the best thing for me.”
FAA went 71-11 and won 12 playoff wins in Eblen's three seasons with the team. His junior and senior seasons he averaged 13 points, eight assists and four steals, propelling him up prospect boards. By his senior season, Scout.com ranked him as a three-star prospect and one of the top point guards in the nation.
It wasn't long before Anthony Grant came calling for the point guard. Grant was a year removed from coaching Virginia Commonwealth to national prominence with an upset win over Duke in the 2007 NCAA tournament. Eblen watched as Grant led VCU to three straight CAA regular season championships and built players like point guard Eric Maynor into first round NBA picks.
“I saw a system I thought I'd fit into really well,” he said. “Coach Grant and I believe in a lot of the same things, not only basketball wise but off the court too.”
He believed in Grant enough that he signed with VCU in November 2008. He believed in him so strongly that when Grant took the head job at Alabama in 2009, Eblen applied for a release from VCU and followed him to the Crimson Tide.
Eblen saw action in 26 games in a reserve role his freshman season and was named to the SEC All-Academic team. He took over as Alabama's backup point guard his sophomore year with a 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio for a team that finished as runner-up in the NIT tournament. His junior season, he lifted his assist-to-turnover ratio to 2.5 while Alabama advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“It's a man's game when you're playing Division I basketball at that level,” he said. “We used to say we were living the dream because that's really what we would dream about growing up, playing in games like that. I learned so much about everything from basketball to life. I wouldn't trade those years for the world.”
Right place, right time
In 2012, Eblen decided to make a change. With just two classes left to earn his undergraduate degree, he finished early and returned home to Charleston in December to plan his next move.
A chance opportunity while working out with Porter Gaud head coach John Pearson blossomed into a visit to nearby UNCW. The Seahawks needed a veteran point guard, and Pearson had the guy. The best part for Eblen, his parents could come see him play live - something much more difficult when he was eight hours away in Tuscaloosa.
“It was always Plan A to play basketball again but I had to find the right situation first,” he said. “My parents have supported me and this basketball thing for so long, I wanted to be somewhere they could see me play more. It was a good fit with a team I thought I could help right away.”
Through 19 games this season, Eblen leads the team in assists, nearly doubling the total of the next closest. He's averaging 3.3 per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.9 that ranks second in the Colonial Athletic Association. Defensively, he's tied for second on the team with a steal per game and averages the second-fewest personal fouls.
“He brings that defensive intensity every night,” Peterson said. “He takes care of the ball, makes the right pass. He has played some big minutes for us this season because he's someone who can be a leader, a quarterback for us.”
Eblen has fit in well with his teammates, not only on the court, but in practice, the locker room and in meetings. The Seahawks roster is heavy with upperclassmen, but few have the big-game experience Eblen saw for three years in the SEC or have faced the type of adversity UNCW is pushing through right now as it tries to find its footing in conference play.
“I haven't been around too many teams that get along as well as we do,” Eblen said. “We're going through some adversity right now but just like life you have to fight through it. We're losing these games by a couple possessions. I know I have to be the guy to step up and help my teammates any way I can so that we can get back on track.”
UNCW is winless in four games in the CAA and Eblen said, as a veteran, he feels a sense of responsibility to step up and help guide the team out of the drought.
“It has been different for Ben since he's been here because he's heard his named called more often than he has the past three years,” Peterson said. “We know what he's capable of. We see it in practice every day. I think the hardest thing for him is probably making that transition.”
Wednesday, Eblen returns to Charleston for what will be his last collegiate game in his home state. As much as he doesn't want to focus on it, it's hard to ignore. Family wants to come see him, former teammates and friends are calling and texting — a few who play for College of Charleston. But right now he's zoned in because as much as he wants to enjoy coming home, he really wants to enjoy a win.
“Charleston is where it all started for me,” he said. “I have so many memories of playing all around the city. It's definitely something I want to enjoy and take in but right now we're coming there to play a conference game and we need a win.”
He played in Columbia against the University of South Carolina twice in his three years with Alabama. November was his first time playing in Charleston when UNCW visited Charleston Southern. He turned in one of the best games of his career with six points, two steals, a blocked shot and eight assists - one on the go-ahead basket in the final 20 seconds to lift UNCW to the win.
“Players always get excited to play in their hometown but, sometimes, it can be a double-edged sword,” Peterson said. “With Ben, it wasn't. He did a great job and played one of the better games he's had all season. That's what you expect to see out of someone like him.”
It's a hometown swan song of a long, often arduous journey the game of basketball has taken him on the past eight years.
Eblen said it has all been a blessing and that he wouldn't change a thing if he could go back. He says it's the people, places and experiences the game has exposed him to that made him who he is today. So Wednesday, at TD Arena at the College of Charleston, it's one last go-around, playing the game that raised him in the city he grew up in.