Caleb Wood's resilience one piece to Penn's basketball puzzle

The clock ticked down. Six seconds left. Now five.

Penn, which led Navy by seven a few minutes earlier, now trailed by one.

The Quakers’ Matt MacDonald passed to teammate Caleb Wood on the left wing. Four seconds remaining now.

Wood drove the left side of the lane, and seeing MacDonald free himself up on the other side of the paint fired a pass in his direction. All he would have to do is lay the ball in and Penn would be …

Whistle, as Wood crashed into Navy’s Shawn Anderson. Offensive foul. Quakers lose.

All of which shows that the path to success is never an easy one. There are always obstacles in the way, always adjustments to be made.

That’s true in a larger sense, too. Steve Donahue, the Quakers’ second-year coach, is trying to rejuvenate a once-proud program, which will take time. Penn went 11-17 in his first season and hasn’t been above .500 since 2011-12.

And he is banking on players like Wood, a junior guard intent on hacking out his own path to success, unconventional as it may be.

The Reno, Nev., native spent a year at one Northern California junior college, another year at a second. In between he took a year off to build up his 6-4 frame, adding 15 pounds of muscle and leaving himself a still-skinny 180.

Some of Donahue’s assistants saw Wood putting up big numbers last year at that second juco, Lassen Community College, and before long he was en route to Philadelphia.

To date Wood is averaging 12.4 points a game, second-most on the team, while shooting 45.5% from the floor and a sizzling 46.7 percent from 3-point range. And the Quakers are 2-3 (including that 70-68 loss to the Midshipmen on Nov. 26) heading into Saturday’s game at Temple on ASN.

And yes, he has found that there are plenty of obstacles to negotiate on this part of his journey.

“All the guys are tougher and more physical than they were in junior college, so that’s the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make as a player,” he said.

Donahue tried Wood at point guard initially, but he has had turnover problems – committing 21, most on the team by a wide margin —so lately the coach has moved him off the ball more, while using junior Darnell Foreman at the point.

“We want him to think about scoring rather than initiating the offense,” Donahue said.

Donahue also brought Wood off the bench in Penn’s most recent game, an 82-57 loss to defending national champion Villanova.

“We’re still tweaking things,” the coach said. “We’re still trying to figure out who we are.”

At least he has a sense of who Wood is, praising him for his passion for the game, not to mention his resilience.

“He’s had his ups and downs early,” Donahue said, “but as the season goes along, he’ll be terrific.”

Ups: Team highs of 25 points against Central Connecticut State and 15 against Navy.

Downs: Those blasted turnovers. Excising those from his game, Wood said, involves “just getting used to this level of play and just cleaning up those little mental mistakes.”

“He’s never turned the ball over in his career,” said Wood’s dad, David, a former professional player. “He’s had a little bit of bad luck in his first five games. I know he’ll make the adjustment without a problem.”

If ever there were a role model for how to gouge out one’s place in the sport, it is the elder Wood. A hard-nosed 6-8 forward, he played for eight teams (and 11 head coaches) over seven NBA seasons, and was part of the U.S. national team that competed in the 1998 world championships, when the NBA was in a lockout. He also played several seasons overseas.

“He’s always been a great mentor and a great teacher for me, and I really look up to him,” Caleb said. “He’s taught me pretty much everything I know.”

Naturally father and son matched up in one-on-one games in the driveway when Caleb was growing up, with a twist: David said he would pay Caleb $100 when his son beat him the first time (an offer the elder Wood has also extended to three younger basketball-playing sons he has by his wife Angela).

Caleb remembers finally beating his dad when he was 16, though David says it might have been a year or two later.

“He was disappointed but proud of me,” Caleb said.

“I weigh 250 pounds,” said David, ever the competitor. “If I wanted to be a real jerk, it would be hard for a 180-, 190-pound guy to beat me.”

After graduating from Galena High School, Caleb spent that year at Monterey Peninsula College, took his belated gap year, then wound up at Lassen. His average of 23.2 points a game was third-best in the state that year, David said, and caught the attention of Penn’s coaches.

Now it’s a matter of making the necessary adjustments, of finding his way around these latest obstacles.

“I think he’s worked extremely hard to make it work,” Donahue said, “and I think it will.”

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