Antonio Woods (above) returned to Penn basketball this season nearly two years after an academic suspension. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
On Jan. 9, 2016, Penn men’s basketball began Ivy League play at home against archrival Princeton. The Quakers put up a tough fight against the Tigers, going into halftime down seven but rallying to take a nine-point lead with five minutes to play before eventually coughing it up down the stretch and losing in overtime.
Antonio Woods watched all of it unfold on television, unable to do a thing. He’d found out only a day before that he would have to leave his team and his school, and then had to hear the announcers discuss his situation on television, in front of whoever was watching: academically ineligible. Season over. The team was moving on.
“Seeing the game and seeing the atmosphere, it...hit me deep,” Woods said.
The Quakers’ sophomore had failed to make “sufficient academic progress” according to the University’s guidelines, and the penalty was a two-semester suspension from the school. He found that out on Jan. 8, the day before the Princeton game, the ruling coming as a surprise, Woods said.
In an instant, the Ohio native went from worrying about the next day’s opponent to suddenly wondering how he’d make ends meet for the next year, and whether he would even graduate.
“It was devastating,” he said. “Not being able to play basketball didn’t even cross my mind...it was the whole school part that hit me the most.”
Immediately after he found out, Woods had to make the walk over from Weightman Hall to the coaches’ offices attached to the Palestra -- a walk that was only a block, but felt like a mile -- to inform Steve Donahue and the rest of the Quakers’ coaching staff, who were dismayed to hear the news. Woods then had to repeat the whole process with his teammates, which proved even more difficult.
“It was just a tough time to relay that message to them, to say that I wouldn’t be on the team and I wouldn’t even be in school anymore,” he said. “That whole day was just surreal.”
Woods said it took him about three months to get over the depression that set in, to start looking forward to what was next. But he was supported by those around him from the get-go.
“(My mom) told me you live and you learn, it’s a life lesson and you can’t let this drag you down,” he said. “It was just my family, my coaches continuing to support, they stayed in contact with me throughout the whole process, making sure I was staying upbeat, not getting too low.”
Resolving himself immediately to return to Penn, Woods first had to deal with the reality of his situation. At the time, he lived in a two-bedroom apartment with another former Penn basketball player, Mike Auger. He had bills to pay, and needed to get a job.
Within a week after his suspension, Donahue put Woods in touch with Kenny Holdsman at Philly Youth Basketball (PYB), and Woods began helping out at the hoops-based youth program almost immediately, spending his summers as a camp counselor in particular. At nights, he worked as a transporter at Temple University Hospital.
“It became kind of like a grind, just trying to pay bills. I basically had to become like a working citizen,” he said. “My schedule was probably 8 a.m. to 5, then try to get a nap in, wake up, go to work 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., then turn around and go back to summer camp from 8 to 5.”
Those months out in the world, Woods said, sparked a period of personal growth.
“It was really a humbling experience working in the hospital, I saw a lot of stuff that I don’t think a 21-year-old should have seen at that age, at that time of his life,” he said. “I moved patients to different areas if they needed MRIs or CT scans, I’d even take people to the morgue, dead bodies.”
“He’s much stronger. I think this whole experience makes him better,” Donahue added.
Woods returned to Penn’s campus in January, after he was readmitted to the school. Throughout the process, he never questioned his decision to wait it out.
“I came in for a reason,” he said. “I came here to get an Ivy League degree and to wear the red and blue, so that’s what I planned on continuing to do for my next two years. There was never really a doubt in my mind whether to leave Penn or not, it was just how I was going to get through (that) year and make sure to get back to my studies and on the court.”
Although he was reinstated to the school in January, Woods didn’t return to the basketball team until after the season, as the Ivy League doesn’t allow redshirting.
A 6-foot-1, 195-pound combo guard who could score from all three levels as well as run the Quaker offense, Woods started 15 games as a freshman and was named Ivy League Rookie of the Week five times, averaging 8.4 points per game and leading the team in assists in his first season with the Quakers.
Woods was primed for an even bigger sophomore season, putting up 10.7 points per game in the 13 contests he played before being dealt the suspension. But when he finally suits up on Nov. 11 in Penn’s season at Fairfield, it will have been 22 months since his last Division I game.
With that comes the unfamiliarity of an updated roster, filled with two new classes of Donahue recruits and a particularly crowded backcourt compared to two years ago.
“We have a lot more guys. A lot more bodies,” Woods said. “For me, it’s just getting acquainted with everybody.”
The Quakers have brought in a considerable load of talent over the last two seasons, both through recruitment and transfers, and the guard situation has changed considerably. Darnell Foreman, who was a sophomore reserve when Woods last played, is a near-lock to start as the lead guard, and current sophomore Devon Goodman will likely back him up after an impressive campaign last season.
If Woods wants to get time, he might be better suited off the ball, but there’s plenty of competition for minutes there, too.
Sophomore Ryan Betley came on strong at the end of last season, averaging 17.8 ppg over his final eight games; the 6-5 wing seems set to be in the starting lineup as well. Junior Jackson Donahue and senior Caleb Wood will see minutes if they can hit shots, but they don’t possess the ball skills Woods brings to the table, so that’s where Woods could find his edge. But he’s still got a long way to get there.
On top of the competition is the fact that Woods has to get back in basketball shape. Sitting out for a year and a half takes it toll fitness-wise, and there’s a ways to go for Woods to reach the level he was at two years ago.
“He’s going to have to do some work,” Donahue said. “He’s not in great shape yet. If we can get him in shape mentally and physically ready, he’s one of the better guards in our league.”
Regardless of whether he makes it on the court frequently, Woods says he is just happy to be playing basketball again, and to be doing so back at Penn.
“I can’t wait to play on this floor again,” he said, referencing the Quakers’ home court in the historic Palestra. “I’m here to do whatever I can to help the team win, whether it’s coming off the bench, starting, or even just being a vocal presence on the bench. I’m here for Penn basketball and I’m trying to put up banners, win championships.
“I’m back, and I’m on a mission.”