Learning to take charge set Woodhead apart

By Kate Fratar

It was a hard play to forget. Men’s basketball had scrambled back from an early 10-point deficit against 14th-ranked Carnegie Mellon and had pushed the game into overtime where the squad once again fought back to tie things up. Another five minutes of battling the Tartans loomed until then-–third-year point guard Brandon Woodhead sank a buzzer-beater from beyond the arc to complete the dramatic comeback.

Besides lifting the Maroons to the 80–77 win, the shot also marked one of Woodhead’s final steps in moving from his place as a solid team contributor to a UAA standout. The Lincoln, NE native quickly wrote himself into the starting lineup as a rookie, but it was toward the tail end of his career, with moments like the trey to edge the Tartans, that he turned the corner from role player to go-to guy.

“I think it really happened at the end of his junior year and at the start of his senior year where Brandon just kind of came to the realization: ‘There’s no need to continue to feel my way around. I’m just going to do what I can do,’” head coach Mike McGrath said. “Brandon always kind of tried to fit in. Really good players don’t just fit in. They do, but they also make a positive impact and make plays. Brandon decided that that was the kind of player he was going to be.”

A strong player in high school but not exactly eye-catching on paper, Woodhead first got the attention of Chicago’s coaches after former assistant coach Rusty Lloyd spotted him playing for a travel team from Nebraska. The Maroons began recruiting him, and Woodhead took the opportunity to play basketball and attend the U of C over walking on at Nebraska or Iowa State and studying engineering.

Joining a large class of newcomers in the fall of 2003, he got the coaching staff talking once again when they saw his rapid improvements in practice. By the time the season opener rolled around, they’d that decided he was game ready and sent him out onto the floor.

“I really didn’t expect to get into the first game,” Woodhead said. “Then all of a sudden, I’m one of the first guys off the bench in the very first game of the season, the first game at Ratner. As a freshman, I don’t know what’s going on, or why I’m in the game.”

Shortly after his debut, Woodhead earned a regular spot in the lineup, starting 23 of the 25 games and chipping in with 4.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. The next season he continued to help pace the team, tying as the team’s leading scorer while averaging 3.4 boards and 2.8 assists per night. After posting similar stats for 2005–2006, Woodhead struck for career and team highs this winter in both points per game (15.5) and shooting percentage (48 percent) to help pave the way for Chicago’s trip to the NCAA first round.

This season’s outburst was the big payoff after four years of developing his shooting and making the switch from his life-long place at point guard over to the two guard. The new platoon of classmate Drew Adams and first-year Jake Pancratz manning his old position pushed Woodhead into the forefront of the Maroons offense, where he responded with 15.5 ppg on a .480 shooting percentage.

He cracked 1,000 points with a 16-point effort in the Maroons’ 89–71 squashing of the Eagles on February 11 at Ratner. Ending his career at 1,032 points, Woodhead is 11th on Chicago’s all-time list. He also finishes among the program’s leaders in assists (third, 310), steals (fifth, 97), and three-pointers (eighth, 114).

“Brandon decided to go from a guy who made shots when he was open to a guy who was making shots when he was guarded,” McGrath said.

“I don’t think I was a bad shooter coming in, but in high school I didn’t really shoot that much off the dribble or any pull ups,” Woodhead said. “I think the biggest strides I’ve ever made since I’ve been here would be in shooting in terms of long-range three-pointers and also a mid-range game I feel like I developed in college.”

Indications of something special to come in his final year came during the squad’s summer trip to Italy. Again turning heads with his command of the court, a scout approached Woodhead about going pro.

“Ability-wise there’s no doubt that there are a lot of places that he could’ve been picked to play basketball,” McGrath said.

Rather than getting caught up in thoughts of life after DIII, Woodhead remained focused on the team’s primary task at hand: winning the UAA. An improved road record helped land the Maroons a share of the league title with Wash U and send them to the NCAA tournament. A 76–54 loss to Hope in the first round cut the squad’s postseason run short, but that hasn’t left Woodhead or his fellow seniors with a sore spot about their time with the Maroons.

“I’m disappointed we lost to Hope, but I really couldn’t have pictured the season going better than it did,” Woodhead said. “We did everything we set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year. When you lose, you’re left wanting more, but looking over the season in its entirety, we definitely played as well as we were hoping to.”