The old adage goes “defense wins championships,” but for Penn men's basketball senior guard Caleb Wood, defense was the only way he would see the court.
Last season was his first with the Quakers after transferring from Lassen Community College and the transition proved to be difficult. He only appeared in seven of 14 Ivy league games and was 11th on the team in minutes, shooting 28.6 percent from three while averaging just 1.4 points per game in conference play.
His defensive stats were equally unfavorable as he came in 11th on the team in defensive win shares once Ivy league play rolled around.
But this season has been a 180 degree turn for the senior from Nevada and it started with him improving his defense and communication on the court.
“For defense it was a lot of footwork drills, playing one on one with quicker guys,” Wood reflected. “The talking thing is more of a mental switch.”
The senior worked with multiple trainers and other Division 1 players over the summer to work towards getting back into the rotation. This season, his offensive output, in addition to his improved defense, has been a revelation off that bench. He is now tied for third on the team in both scoring (9.1 ppg) and three point percentage (41.1).
Furthermore, he leads in true shooting percentage out of all Quakers who have played in all 22 games. In fact, he is the only bench player to play in every game this season. As a result, Wood ranks sixth on the team in defensive win shares.
Wood’s offensive versatility has allowed coach Steve Donahue to take out either forward Max Rothschild or AJ Brodeur and run four guards, or leave the frontcourt in and let Wood make teams pay for focusing on the interior.
Unsurprisingly, Wood’s improvements have also earned the praises and his coach and teammates.
“He did a great job understanding his shortcomings, worked on it, and dedicated himself to coming back a better player,” coach Steve Donahue said of Wood's spark off the bench.
Junior guard Jake Silpe, who has had a bounce back season of his own, added on.
“To see one of your peers, one of your friends, one of your teammates come out of a situation like that and play really well is really awesome to see.”
In the last three games, all against Ivy League opponents, Wood is averaging 16 points on 53.3 percent shooting. Against Princeton, he was the only bench player to see significant playing time and played a huge role in Penn’s first regular season sweep of Princeton since 2008.
Still, the memories of toiling on the bench last year are not lost on Wood.
“It’s definitely very difficult as someone who’s very competitive. It’s really hard on you mentally just not being in the rotation. It was fun watching our guys do great at the end of last season and I tried to be as supportive as I could off the bench,” Wood reflected. “But during the offseason, I definitely wanted to work as hard as I could to get into the rotation for this year.”
Wood cited his love for his teammates and the opportunity to study at an Ivy League school as reasons that he never regretted his decision to transfer to Penn.
Donahue added that most players would have sulked and given up if they were in Wood’s situation. However, what makes any player great is the ability to push through adversity. Donahue continued by saying he was not surprised about Wood’s turnaround, citing his strong work ethic even as he fell out of favor last year.
“He’s way more competitive and way tougher," Donahue said. "He guards better, he rebounds better, and he may be our most talented offensive player.”
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