Jeff Woodward (above) has carried his strong post game into his freshman season at Colgate. (Photo: Justin Wolford/Colgate Athletics)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Jeff Woodward knew he was going to begin his college hoops career with a valuable role off the bench for Matt Langel’s Colgate squad. Beyond that, nothing was guaranteed.
After all, as Woodward noted, “[in] college basketball, if you’re not playing well, you’re not going to be playing that much.”
The 6-foot-10, 260-pound center played 15 minutes in his college debut, scoring six points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out two assists back on Jan. 2 against Army. Less than three months later, Colgate’s season is still going, the Patriot League tournament champions arriving in Indianapolis with a 14-1 record and 13-game win streak dating back to Jan. 3.
And Woodward’s role hasn’t changed a bit.
As it turned out, the Methacton product’s debut was a sign of things to come: Playing in 14 of his team’s 15 games for an average of 16.4 minutes per outing, Woodward comes into March Madness averaging 7.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per contest. Across all of Division I basketball, only 10 other freshmen are averaging at least those numbers; Woodward is the only one shooting better than 60% from the floor (64.4%).
He’s scored in double figures six times and has flirted with a few double-doubles, including a 10-point, nine-rebound effort against Holy Cross on Jan. 31.
Is he happy with how the year’s gone from a personal standpoint?
“Yeah, I’m really happy,” Woodward told CoBL on Monday, speaking by phone from his hotel room where he (along with every other player and coach just arriving in Indianapolis) was waiting out a brief quarantine period. “I’m glad that I was able to play well, that I was able to help our team achieve the things that we have achieved.”
Woodward is half of a one-two punch that the Raiders utilize up front, with sophomore big Keegan Records starting all 15 games. Records, who’s 6-10 and 245 pounds, averaged 9.3 ppg and 6.9 rpg in 22.5 mpg, and, like Woodward, made better than 60% from the floor. The two give Langel the ability to put physicality on the floor at all times, and the coach will roll with the hot hand on any given night.
“You put those two guys’ numbers together and from the center spot we’ve got a first-team all-league performance day-in and day-out,” Langel said. “Woodward’s been a huge part of that.”
During his Tuesday press conference, Langel didn’t have a shortage of compliments for his first-year big man.
“He’s one of the most unique players that I’ve come across,” said Langel, a Penn grad and former Temple assistant who’s guided Colgate into four consecutive Patriot League championship games, winning it all in 2019 and again this year. “I think what makes him unique as a player is really his comfort with himself at a young age of who he is off the court.
“He’s a super-intelligent guy who’s also a big goofball, and he has no problem hamming it up with the older guys and asking the coaches difficult questions or making a recommendation on the court to a coach, and he’s usually right. Which speaks to his best asset as a basketball player, his intelligence. And you don’t usually say that about guys who are 6-10, 260 pounds.
“He sees the game a play ahead, you don’t have to tell him things twice, he really has been a sponge in his learning curve, which is incredible for first-year guys, and he’s an extraordinary passer.”
Jeff Woodward (above, last season) led his high school team to three consecutive PAC championships. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Ah yes, the passing ability. It’s something Woodward showed plenty of in his time at Methacton, playing as the centerpiece for Jeff Derstine’s Warriors. In leading his program to three straight PAC championships and a District 1 6A championship as a senior, Woodward’s work out of the high and low post made a bevy of already-talented Methacton guards that much more effective, the burly center able to find cutters or make pinpoint cross-court passes on a regular basis.
Woodward’s season high for assists as a Colgate freshman was five, with nine multi-assist games and only one without a dime. You can bet the six guys shooting 36% or better from 3-point range appreciate being able to throw it to a big who’s likely to dish it right back for an open look.
“I don’t think we knew how great he could actually be,” said senior guard Jordan Burns, Colgate’s leading scorer (17.0 ppg) and ball-handler (5.4 apg). “As we started to see he could really pass the ball, we started using him more in the middle of the floor and he was able to dictate more as a big man than we’ve had in previous years.
“He’s going to be special in this league,” added Burns, the 2021 Patriot League Player of the Year and the program’s fifth leading scorer all-time with 1,653 points.
The Raiders will certainly need Woodward and Records at their best on Friday, as the No. 14 seed will face No. 3 seeded Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament (12:45 PM, TruTV). Eric Musselman’s Razorbacks are perimeter-oriented in their attack led by wing Moses Moody (17.4 ppg/5.9 rpg) and guard JD Notae (13.3 ppg), but there’s size as well, including 6-7 Justin Smith (13.0 ppg/6.9 rpg) and freshman Jaylin Williams (3.6 ppg/4.6 rpg).
Though he doesn’t start, 7-foot-3 sophomore Connor Vanover is one of the more intriguing posts in the country, with his ability to step out and knock down 3-point shots (32.4%) as well as protect the rim (1.8 bpg), averaging 6.6 ppg and 4.7 rpg overall in 17.1 minutes.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played against somebody who’s 7-3,” Woodward said. “I definitely think Keegan and I have a chance to still play at the level that we can if we’re playing smart and playing the way I know both of us can play. I know we can both do some damage.”
Between now and then, Woodward will get to enjoy the March Madness experience, at least the COVID pandemic version of it. He and his teammates were confined to the 18th floor of the Hyatt Regency until the end of testing, at which point they were given more access to the hotel, which is occupied by a dozen or so programs and nobody else during the tournament.
There won’t be any open locker rooms jam-packed with cameras and reporters, no public practices, nor any of the other perks that typically come with being a student-athlete during the NCAA Division I basketball tournament. But it’s still the Big Dance, a game coming up in the Indiana Pacers’ arena, the eyes of basketball fans around the world tuned in like no other weekend in the sport.
“I remember being in high school and the first weekend, this upcoming Friday, I would get no work done in school because all I would want to do is watch March Madness games all day,” Woodward said. “Now to be able to play in the tournament, especially my freshman year, it’s absolutely wild.”
Though Colgate is a 14-seed, they’re getting a good bit of national buzz as a potential upset pick to watch. CBS Sports’ Seth Davis mentioned the Raiders as his upset pick, and plenty of others have noted the team’s impressive numbers. KenPom gives Colgate a 22% chance of pulling off the victory, and crazier things certainly have happened in March.
It’s also a sign of the respect Colgate is getting as a program, not unheard of amongst Patriot League squads. Bucknell, which knocked off Kansas as a No. 14 seed in 2005, beat Arkansas in the opening round of the tournament a year later. And of course there’s the famous Lehigh upset of Duke from nine years back, with C.J. McCollum leading the way.
Considering Burns scored 32 points against Tennessee two years ago when Colgate came within seven points of pulling that upset, Woodward knows anything could happen.
“We always talk about playing against teams that have nothing to lose –– and I don’t want to say we have nothing to lose, we all want to win, we’re all gunning to win, we all think we have a good shot to win –– but that pressure isn’t necessarily on us,” Woodward said. “There’s been a lot of hard work and a lot of behind the scenes where we don’t just roll the ball out and we’re Patriot League champs, we’ve all put in I don’t know how many countless hours of work by ourselves and with the team to get here.”