Men's Basketball

Penn State men’s basketball: Woodward’s confidence grows despite his youth

Graham Woodward came free off a screen and caught a pass on the wing. It was the first time he touched the ball in a collegiate game.

The true freshman squared up, saw he was open and launched a 3-pointer.

He buried the shot in the first half of Penn State’s season-opening victory against Wagner on Saturday, which had his head coach ask a valid question.

“When was the last time you saw a freshman do that?” third-year coach Patrick Chambers asked. “It’s been a while, across the country I would say that. He’s a confident young man, and we need that. We need that swagger, that toughness. He’s fearless when he gets on the floor and he elevates our team.”

The trey was the only shot Woodward attempted in the game, as he was one of two freshmen to make their debuts. Woodward also chipped in one rebound and an assist, but had three fouls in nine minutes. Chambers said he expects the guard to get more minutes Wednesday, as the Nittany Lions (1-0) host Bucknell (0-1) at 7 p.m. in the Bryce Jordan Center in the “Battle for Route 45.”

Woodward also put on quite the shooting display as he connected on three of his four attempts from beyond the arc in Penn State’s exhibition win against Northwood (Fla.) earlier in the month. The 6-foot, 170-pound point guard said he’s been able to get in the gym more to shoot, and Chambers said he’s been playing Woodward primarily off the ball because he has had a hot hand.

However, Chambers does not mind handing the keys of the offense to Woodward. The coach noted he would have no trouble with Woodward running the point for 20-25 minutes a game, and praised his basketball IQ.

“That’s something that has been a part of me from a young age,” Woodward said of commanding an offense. “I was able to get in and help the team. (That) was what I thought of throughout the summer, and having that sense of confidence throughout, being with this team, definitely pushed that.”

The Lions have a guard-heavy roster, and of their two best players, Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill, the former is a true point guard, while the latterhad to play the position last season. Every so often, Chambers -- a college point guard at Philadelphia University -- will have a point guard meeting with the two veteran guards, and Woodward has also earned an invitation to the gatherings.

Frazier and Woodward’s relationship dates back to when Woodward made his official recruiting visit to Penn State and Frazier, the first-team all-Big Ten selection from two seasons ago, hosted him. Since Woodward got to campus in the summer, Frazier has furthered his mentor role. Frazier was on the bench when Woodward drained his 3-pointer on Saturday, but once the shot when through the net, Frazier stepped a few feet on the floor clapping, and had to be dragged back to his seat by an assistant.

“He was coming in wanting to get better. He asks great questions,” Frazier said. “As a point guard, he sits in meetings with myself and coach and D.J. He’s done a lot, and those are the kind of people you want on your team. And other freshmen have done that as well, but he’s really taken an extra step and learned as much as possible.”

The native of Edina, Minn., a suburb of Minneapolis, was a finalist for Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball last season and he had to deal with a few text messages and tweets from friends after the Golden Gophers beat the Nittany Lions on the gridiron Saturday.

Nearly 1,000 miles from his hometown, Woodward and his teammates will face a Bucknell team fresh off an NCAA Tournament appearance last season. The Bison (0-1) lost their season opener at Stanford 72-68 Friday. Bucknell had four players score in double-figures, including the backcourt of Steven Kaspar and Cameron Ayers, who combined for 23 points, 12 assists and 12 rebounds.

Frazier and Newbill each had double-doubles in Saturday’s 74-62 win against Wagner, and are threats to repeat those performances on any night, but if one of them needs a blow, or gets in foul trouble, Woodward has assurance from teammates and the poise to come in and run the offense. And as a freshman, playing behind talent certainly can have its advantages.

“I think learning from (Frazier), one of the best guards, obviously, in the Big Ten is going to do wonders for me my sophomore, junior, senior year,” Woodward said.