Wood's 'loophole' transfer lifts Spartans

March 13, 2012

Brandon Wood should be playing for Valparaiso right now, not Michigan State. With him, Valpo could be in the NCAA tournament instead of the NIT. Without him, the Spartans might not have won the Big Ten tournament and received a No. 1 seed.

It's just like with Russell Wilson, who shouldn't have been the quarterback at Wisconsin last season. He should have been at North Carolina State for his final year. If that was the case, it might have been Michigan State, not the Badgers, playing in the Rose Bowl.

Both players and programs took advantage of a terrible loophole in the NCAA rules that allow an athlete who has received his bachelor's degree to transfer to another school for postgraduate studies while remaining eligible immediately.

Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo made it clear even before the season that he was not a proponent of the rule. But, as Izzo pointed out, if Wood weren't playing for him, he quite possibly would have played against him for another Big Ten school such as Purdue or Indiana.

The concern is that there's potential here for the major schools to raid the mid-majors to fill a hole with an experienced player for one year.

"I worry about that down the road," Izzo said.

Izzo has never relied much on transfers, but he made an exception in Wood's case because his team needed quick-fix help in the backcourt for a season after Korie Lucious was suspended last year and subsequently transferred to Iowa State.

Wood, meanwhile, had decided he was leaving Valpo because he wanted an opportunity to play on a bigger stage and to prove himself against the best competition in college basketball.

In the end, it's working out for the fifth-year senior and the coach.

But there were certainly some shaky moments along the way for both, particularly when Wood lost his starting job in early February because his defense wasn't up to Izzo's standards.

"It just feels great to see my hard work pay off," Wood, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, said after being named to the Big Ten all-tournament team.

Wood, 23, didn't take the most direct route to East Lansing, but he's grateful he got there. It has made him a much more complete player as opposed to merely the scorer that he was when he arrived last July.

Wood spent the 2007-08 season at Southern Illinois, transferred to Highland (Ill.) Community College for 2008-09, transferred again in 2009-10 to Valparaiso, where he spent two seasons, before transferring one last time to Michigan State.

Izzo is his fourth college coach. Wood said he had multiple coaches in high school, too.

One of the turning points for him came when Izzo demoted him to the second unit while making the statement, "I don't want to coach energy."

"He had to look in the mirror and say, 'If I'm going to play here, I've got to defend better, I've got to play with more grit, I've got to run in the lanes,' " Izzo said.

Wood, who started the first 22 games and now the last three since freshman guard Branden Dawson's injury, is averaging 8.6 points for the season.

In the three Big Ten tournament games, Wood averaged 13.3 points on 55.2 percent shooting, including 7 for 13 from 3-point range.

That's not what impressed his teammates, though.

"We already know what Brandon can do on the offensive end," senior captain Draymond Green said following the Big Ten championship-game victory over Ohio State. "I was mostly impressed with his defense. That's an area Brandon has been growing in since he got here."

Wood admits he had to do some soul-searching last month. He averaged 16.7 and 17.7 points during his two years at Valparaiso while playing more than 31 minutes a game, but expectations were considerably different at Michigan State.

For this team to get better, he had to make changes.

"Ever since he put me in that second group, I knew I had to step up my energy," Wood said. "I did that in practice and it carried over.

"I had to hold myself accountable. If that's bringing more energy, more aggression and more toughness, more grit then that's what I have to do."

Since that day — Feb. 5 — Wood has been making more and more of the hustle plays.

When Dawson went down with a season-ending knee injury during the final regular-season game, there was concern how the Spartans would respond. The athletic freshman was so important to the team for his rebounding and defensive versatility.

But Wood has come through better than expected. He's not only making big shots, but he's become what Green described as "one of our lock-down defenders."

"We kept challenging him," Izzo said of Wood. "He didn't always like it and didn't always see it, but he kept trying to at least hear us and realize it.

"It's fun to watch him grow in that respect. He came in as a guy that maybe wasn't as tough, not a good rebounder and definitely not as good a defender. What he's done in seven months is pretty impressive. I just think it's sad that we don't have him longer."