Mississippi State freshman Robert Woodard II, a former standout at Columbus High School, will play today in his first NCAA Tournament game. Photo by: Mississippi State Athletic Media Relations
March 22, 2019 10:15:44 AM
By Ben Portnoy
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Mississippi State freshman guard Robert Woodard II has been on the big stage before.
As a standout at Columbus High School, the 6-foot-7 guard helped the Falcons to Cass 6A state championships in 2016 and 2018.
Woodard also spent time on the prestigious Nike Elite Youth Basketball League circuit as a part of MEBO Elite. During the 2017 EYBL season he averaged 14.4 points and 10.2 rebounds in 16 games.
He was also a member of the USA Basketball under-16 National Team that took home a gold medal in the 2015 FIBA Americas U16 Championships in Bahia Blanca, Argentina.
Though for the grandest stage of all, Woodard didn't don a sleeveless jersey and gym shorts. Rather, he bore a cap and gown.
Standing on stage at Humphrey Coliseum last spring, the towering superstar delivered an address to his assembled classmates as the valedictorian of the Columbus High School class of 2018.
Proud as could be, Woodard's mother Velma looked on.
"I thought about the fact that my husband had played at State, I'm an alumni from State and now our son is standing here before his peers as the valedictorian of his class and now he will be the next generation to attend Mississippi State University as a student-athlete," she said.
Friday night, Woodard will be on center stage once more as No. 5 seed MSU takes on No. 12 seed Liberty in the first round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the SAP Center in San Jose, California.
"We feel like we've earned this moment," Woodard said. "So we just want to take advantage."
Woodard has been a productive piece in head coach Ben Howland's rotation. He has averaged 5.3 points and 4.0 rebounds in 33 games.
He has also scored 10 points in a game twice -- once against then-No. 6 Tennessee in a March 5 tilt and the other versus Arkansas on Feb. 16.
"I feel like I've made a lot of progress through the year," Woodard said. "I've grown as a player individually because my confidence is higher and just being able to get acquainted with the game. I feel great."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Woodard has been a key cog at MSU. Given his prolific offensive display at Columbus and with MEBO Elite, he was a consensus four-star recruit who earned Mississippi Gatorade Player of the Year honors twice.
Woodard was also rated the No. 46 recruit in the ESPN Top 100 last year.
"Once you go to college, everybody is good, everybody was an All-American or the best player on their high school team," said Anthony Carlyle, who was Woodard's coach in his junior year at Columbus. "So you have to be able to have something different to standout once you get to that level to contribute and I think he's doing a good job of that right now when I see him block a lot of shots, dunks and that kind of thing."
That said, rankings mean little once the ball is tipped. The SEC presents its own set of challenges. Trips to deafening venues such as Kentucky's Rupp Arena and Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena offer some of the most difficult environments in America to play.
Yet Woodard has handled them with poise.
Friday night, Columbus' prodigal son will play in the glitz and glam of the NCAA Tournament bearing a maroon-and-white uniform instead of graduation attire. He'll carry the hopes of the MSU fan base, the Columbus community and all those who have helped him reach the zenith of the college basketball world.
But the extra pressure shouldn't bother him. Besides, Woodard's been in the spotlight before.
"I guess it's just the same with everything," he said. "Just don't get too high, stay level headed, stick to what you know to get you through it."
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