At last, Woodbury appreciated at Iowa: 'It feels nice'

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — To the former and current Adam Woodbury haters out there, Iowa’s 7-foot-1 center thanks you.

Woodbury’s contributions to the Iowa basketball program have been hard to miss this year, and as a result, the Sioux City native has seen the amount of appreciation for his game increase. He's had plenty of incentive to get here.

“Who would say it doesn’t feel nice? Obviously, it feels nice to be appreciated,” Woodbury said Tuesday with a laugh. “But for the few people that didn’t appreciate me, that gave me motivation to work even harder.”

Woodbury’s fourth year as a Hawkeye has been, to steal a word from coach Fran McCaffery, spectacular. He’s been a rock-solid force in the middle of the nation's 11th-most efficient defense, distributes as well as any Division I 7-footer you’ll find (watch his outlet passes sometime), and he seems to win far more than 50 percent of the so-called 50/50 balls that spur momentum.

Iowa center Adam Woodbury, has secured the following rebound totals in the last six games: 11, 10, 10, 9, 14 and 15.

He’s averaging 9.2 rebounds during Iowa’s 10-1 start to the Big Ten Conference season — including 14.5 a game last week in wins over Penn State and Illinois. He's averaging close to a double-double (8.5 points, 11.5 rebounds) in the Hawkeyes' last six games, and has cracked double digits in scoring five of the past seven times out.

“I think a lot of people thought our team would suffer because we lost such a good player in graduation to (Big Ten sixth man of the year) Gabe Olaseni,” McCaffery said, “but I think it's really helped Woodbury with his confidence. He's playing a lot more minutes. His role is obviously much more critical than it's ever been.”

Entering this season, he was averaging 4.6 boards a game. He also was playing in the shadow of big men Aaron White and Gabe Olaseni for three years.

Perhaps that’s why he was a popular fan target for criticism. He remains the highest-ranked recruit in the McCaffery era — No. 39 overall nationally in the Class of 2012 by ESPN — but never had the “20-and-10” type stat lines that sometimes accompany big-time prospects.

Senior point guard Mike Gesell, who had hype of his own as ESPN’s No. 75 overall prospect that year, thinks fan expectations were always unreasonable for his classmate. Big numbers were never Woodbury's game.

Gesell saw the criticism for three years at Iowa, especially in January 2015, when some prominent national voices, including ESPN’s Dan Dakich, charged that Woodbury was cowardly and gutless after eye-poking incidents.

“It’s easy for the average fan to look at a guy who’s 7-foot and think they should be the next Shaq, dunking on everyone,” Gesell said. “But that’s not his game. His game is really (being) a dirty-work guy, a leader on this team, a guy that does all the things that don’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet.”

Woodbury has reason to be gratified personally, and he deserves the appreciation he's now getting from Iowa’s fans. When he agreed to come to Iowa more than four years ago, he turned down blue-blood powerhouse North Carolina to join a program that was near the bottom of the Big Ten.

Now, Iowa is ranked No. 4 nationally by The Associated Press and No. 5 in the USA TODAY Coaches’ Poll. It’s alone in first place in the conference with seven games to go. A spotlight game is next, at No. 22 Indiana (8 p.m. Thursday, ESPN).

Yes, Woodbury saw this coming.

“I think if you guys listen to some of my interviews back when I was a senior in high school, this is what I wanted to do,” Woodbury said. “I wanted to help bring the Iowa team back to some of the national prominence that it used to have. It’s a very storied program that we have here. We’re just trying to help it try to regain some of the esteem it once had.”

That’s not hyperbole. Iowa has appeared in the AP Top 25 on 336 occasions since the poll’s inception in 1949. That total ranks 22nd among Division I programs. But asked Tuesday why he chose Iowa, he simply said: “I believed.”

Now, fans are believing in him. The Woodbury haters are virtually silent.

It’s a story worth appreciating.

“For it to kind of come to fruition a little bit, so to speak, is cool,” Woodbury said. “I’ll look back on this time in my life in a long time and really appreciate what I’ve done. But right now, I’m stuck in the moment and just trying to win as many games as I can.”