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Methacton grad Jeff Woodward, Colgate back on NCAA Tournament stage

03/20/2024, 4:15pm EDT
By Owen McCue

By Owen_McCue (@Owen_McCue)

The Colgate men’s basketball program has become a fixture of March Madness. 

After a sixth straight Patriot League Tournament championship, the 14th-seed Raiders are set for their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance in six years when they face third-seed Baylor on Friday.

One of the recognizable faces of the run is their 6-foot-11 bearded big man Jeff Woodward, who’s made winning a habit of his basketball career while drawing comparisons to a man from the Ice Age for his facial hair.

The scruffy Methacton boys basketball product has hoisted hardware in seven straight seasons beginning with a Pioneer Athletic Conference title his sophomore season with the Warriors. 

“It hasn’t gotten old,” Woodward said. “It’s obviously a really unique position and unique opportunity I’ve had over the past seven years. I’m just thankful that every year has produced, at the end of the year, a similar result, but it certainly hasn’t gotten old.”

Woodward finished his high school career as Methacton’s all-time scoring leader (1,450) as well as the school’s career leader in rebounds (1,140) and blocks (262), helping the Warriors to three straight PAC titles and their first District 1 championship in 2020.

The Raiders senior forward, who played his AAU ball for East Coast Power, has played in 119 games during his Colgate career, including 25 starts (18 this season). He’s averaged 7.0 ppg and 4.3 rpg during his career sharing the frontcourt with first team All-Patriot League big man Keegan Records

Colgate senior forward Jeff Woodward plays at the Palestra last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)

Under the direction of Matt Langel, Colgate has dominated the Patriot League during Woodward’s career. Following a pair of league tournament titles prior to his arrival, Woodward helped extend that streak to six and compile a 60-6 league record during his four years — not dissimilar to the 32-2 mark his Methacton teams posted in the PAC during his final two years under Jeff Derstine.

“I think there’s a couple of things that really carried over,” Woodward said. “I think one, and I think is a big one, is just the coaches I had at both Methacton and now here at Colgate. Both Coach Langel and Coach Derstine are great mentors and just great leaders. …. And just kind of that stability and the culture they were able to create and especially here at Colgate the players that Coach Langel brought in to sustain that culture and really reinforce it has been huge.”

While the Raiders have dominated the Patriot League, they turn from Goliath to David when they enter the NCAA Tournament every year, going from the top dog to a low seed trying to upset a giant from a power conference.

Woodward’s first NCAA Tournament appearance with Colgate came in 2021 in Indianapolis during his freshman season when the Raiders lost to Arkansas in front of a reduced crowd due to COVID-19 precautions.

In the years since, they played Wisconsin in front of 17,500 people at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisc. and Texas in front of 17,000 people at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. They will face a second straight Big 12 team in Baylor at FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn. at 12:40 p.m. on Friday.

“It’s something that you don’t get in any other type of environment,” Woodward said. “We played at Illinois and Arizona and Syracuse this year. Obviously we have our contingent of Colgate fans, but everyone else is there rooting for the big school,” Woodward said. “(In March Madness), it’s huge crowds, Power 5 school environments and it’s people who might not have any idea where Colgate is, but we’re an underdog so they’re going to be rooting for us.”

Even in his fourth straight tournament, the experience hasn’t been lost on Woodward, who enjoys every part — from the texts and calls when his team locks up a spot, to the nervous excitement on Selection Sunday, to the drum lines and bands, “Welcome Colgate” signs and March Madness gear waiting for him and his teammates when they arrive at the tournament site.

The Raiders’ consistent presence in the Big Dance has made them a popularly discussed upset pick when the brackets are unannounced every year.

“To be a team to look out for and whatever other terminology they use, it’s really cool and a testament to what we’ve been able to do in not just the regular season but also in making it to four straight NCAA Tournaments,” Woodward said.

He’s personally become a popular attraction on the internet during the stretch as well. A “too small” celebration was clipped and shared around social media during his freshman campaign and his flex went viral against Wisconsin a year later. 

He was clean shaven for his first NCAA Tournament game because it made wearing a mask too uncomfortable, but the beard — which debuted during his junior year at Methacton — draws in some fans too when Colgate starts playing in front of a larger TV audience starting around conference tournament time. He starts to grow it during No Shave November and lets it run quite wild come March.

“It’s gone through very many different iterations and variations, but it’s a quasi-postseason moreso entirety of the season beard and it seems to really get the attention in the postseason when it kind of gets to its longest and most recognizable,” Woodward said.

“I’m never gonna complain with bringing a little bit of excitement or laughter to somebody’s life,” he added.

Colgate has a pair of wins at Syracuse in 2021-22 and 2022-23 during Woodward’s tenure, two triumphs of little school over big. The Raiders are still looking to replicate that in the NCAA Tournament as the school is not just 0-for-3 in the last three seasons but 0-6 all-time in tournament games.

As a No. 14 seed in 2021, Colgate lost to No. 3 Arkansas despite leading as late as nine minutes into the second half. The Raiders had No. 3 Wisconsin on the ropes a year later in an eventual 67-60 loss. Last season, as a No. 15 seed the Raiders were overmatched by No. 2 Texas. 

They head into the matchup with Baylor with more experience than most double-digit seed small conference winners.

“That not having to adjust period is really beneficial I feel and has allowed us, especially over the past two years, to really stay competitive over large spurts of the game,” Woodward said. “Obviously we haven’t been able to close one out all the way, but I definitely think that the experience that we have really helps us out in that regard.”

From his experience, he also knows Colgate will have plenty of people pulling for it.

“In March Madness there’s gonna be fans who don’t have a team they’re rooting for and most of them in my experience have picked to root for the underdog,” Woodward said.

“When we go on a mini run or do whatever we’re doing, you can definitely feel the crowd behind you.”

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