A tale of the Tigers

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Teams coming to Hampden-Sydney will be greeted by a student section underneath the basket, not to mention Adam Brazil.
Hampden-Sydney athletics photo by Steve Davies

By Riley Zayas

For as long as Caleb Kimbrough has been around the ODAC — this year makes 16 seasons spent in the league — there has always been a particular allure about Hampden-Sydney College.

“I remember losing a lot of recruiting battles to Hampden-Sydney,” Kimbrough says thinking back. “I thought to myself, ‘Okay, these guys clearly have something going on.’ “

He was spot-on. Through six years as an assistant at Guilford, along with a season spent at Washington & Lee and four as a standout guard at Guilford, Kimbrough developed an appreciation for the century-old program which calls rural Virginia home.

The oldest privately chartered college in the southern United States, HSC’s history and significance is felt across the 1,300-acre men’s only campus. Located outside of Farmville, Virginia (pop. 7,473), it may seem odd to find the nation’s top-ranked men’s basketball program tucked away in such an obscure part of the country, but HSC fits that description. Those around the college speak with great pride of the gameday atmospheres found through the fall, winter, and spring, as the rich tradition of Tiger athletics is supported with fervor by those in the surrounding communities. The only evidence needed is a glance at the crowds seen inside Kirby Fieldhouse on a regular basis, and even more so in the past two seasons that have coincided with HSC’s resurgence back into the national picture. With the gym nearly packed to capacity, and the raucous student section standing just a few feet from the baseline, the atmosphere is a sight to behold.

“You have Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney and they’re on opposite sides of the town,” explains Kimbrough. “The whole town really gets behind both schools. I’ll give you an example. This past Saturday, we played at home at 7 o’clock. And Longwood had their senior day at 2 o’clock. Well, the community went to the Longwood game, and they had a big win over High Point, and then everybody flooded in for our game right afterwards. It’s a Friday night lights feel.”

And in front of that crowd of 975, HSC put forth a statement showing. In their second-round NCAA Tournament matchup, the Tigers, who are 28-2 this season, led Farmingdale State, 49-20 at the half. HSC cruised to a 72-51 win that not only punched a ticket to the third round of the NCAA Tournament but made a significant piece of history in the process.

The Tigers reached the third round of the tournament for the first time since 2003, the year HSC advanced to the Final Four under coach Tony Shaver and behind the play of All-American Jeff Monroe.

“That gym, that atmosphere, it does so much for us,” Davidson Hubbard, one of HSC’s four senior starters, told D3hoops.com. “We bring our own energy wherever we go, and are so together and connected as a team. That is big for us.

And it figures to be key once again. HSC announced by midweek that Friday’s Sweet 16 duel with Rowan is completely sold out, a testament to the rising attention focused on the Tigers and their push to reach the program’s second Final Four.

What makes the story that much more intriguing is the fact that for an entire decade, from 2013-2023, HSC found itself in a tournament drought. There were two years, in 2015 and 2016, in which HSC finished at .500 in ODAC play. But there was also the 1-15 league record in 2018-19 that preceded Kimbrough’s first year on the job. And the 3-13 season prior to that one.

In a conference with consistent national contenders—Guilford, Roanoke, Virginia Wesleyan, and Randolph-Macon for starters—competing in the ODAC is a tall task in and of itself. Much less doing it at a consistent rate. But that is what made Kimbrough so valuable to the HSC program upon his arrival in the spring of 2019. The tradition and interest level in such a storied institution was still present, and he had the value background necessary, both as a student-athlete and an assistant coach, to take HSC back to its winning ways.

“Being familiar with the ODAC coming into the job was very helpful,” Kimbrough, who spent three years as the head coach at Huntingdon before taking the HSC job, said. “I had an appreciation of the type of young man that Hampden-Sydney was able to attract. So when we came in, I think it was just flipping the mindset of, let’s not assume that just because we’re Hampden-Sydney that we’re going to win. As a matter of fact, let’s not even talk about winning. We need to take a deeper dive into talking about, ‘What’s our bigger vision?'”

Hubbard was one of the key additions to the program for the 2020-21 campaign, Kimbrough’s second at the helm, as the tide began to turn. With Kimbrough implementing his style and approach, Hubbard saw something special in what was being built, even with the program’s last NCAA Tournament appearance coming seven years prior, when he was still in elementary school.

“I think the biggest thing was the coaches,” Hubbard recalls. “Being as young as they are, they connect with the players in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It was a team that didn’t have much to lose, and was on the up, I felt.”

Bringing HSC back to national prominence did not happen overnight, but the signs of it were visible, evidenced by Hubbard’s reasoning for his commitment to the program in 2020. Getting buy-in from the current players was the first step in re-establishing a high standard and aiming for success on the court.

“I think the biggest key to all of that was that we had to create it with the team,” Kimbrough said. “We had to align it with what Hampden-Sydney was as an institution as well. What that created was a shared accountability across the board to how we’re going to operate.”

Kimbrough describes that phase aptly as being a “long process”. It took three challenging seasons — an abbreviated 2020-21 season did not help — but in 2022-23, a breakthrough came. With experienced talent that had committed to the vision and rose along with the program itself, HSC notched its first 20-win season since 2012-13. The Tigers went 14-2 in the ODAC, snapped the tournament drought, and in the process surprised many, considering HSC had been picked fifth in the league’s October preseason poll.

But it was no surprise for those in the locker room.

“Once we went through that process, it established a foundation that we thought we’d be able to build upon for years and years,” Kimbrough said. “Obviously, every year you want to tweak it and talk about it and make sure everyone is committed. I think the first two and a half years of going through it with the team and creating what we call our basketball culture was really the start of giving us a better focus to be able to do what we are now.”

Kimbrough and his squad haven’t had much time to catch their breath since the season tipped off with a 74-53 win over then-No. 1 ranked Christopher Newport at Kirby Field House. Wins against Widener, Swarthmore, and John Carroll, who was the nation’s No. 1 team at the time, all followed before Christmas for the Tigers.

Then came the conference schedule in the ODAC, which included four NCAA Tournament teams and three Sweet 16 teams. Every night is a battle within the league. Navigating the conference tournament inside the historic Salem Civic Center is no easy feat either. When HSC hoisted the trophy high on Sunday afternoon two weeks ago, it marked the Tigers’ first ODAC Tournament title since 2007.

“We have 13 teams in our league and you play four of them twice and everyone else once,” Kimbrough said, noting the 16-game ODAC schedule. “So your league games are the majority of your schedule. Our approach has always been, ‘Let’s schedule great non-league competition.’ Part of it is the way D-III works and your strength of schedule. But it will also prepare you and help you be competitive in the ODAC. And I think if you can be competitive in the ODAC, you can be competitive on the national scale.”

In the 85-67 win at John Carroll on Dec. 19, Hubbard led the way with 31 points in a career-high performance. Last Friday, in the first round win over La Roche, the 6-5 forward led the charge in a 21-point, eight-rebound effort. As HSC’s leading scorer, Hubbard continues to be one of a number of key contributors to what has already been a season for the record books. With complete buy-in from the roster, and in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in consecutive seasons since 2004, the Tigers are embracing each step in this postseason run.

“We don’t feel much pressure at all,” Hubbard said, looking ahead to Friday’s matchup. “Whether they put a number on our name or not, we know the team we are. I feel like we’ve been in so many situations previously that have had tough results, like losing last year in the ODAC semifinals in a heartbreaker. This season, we know what we need to get done and we’re making it happen.”

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