Demon Duo

NSU's Zeek Woodley and Jalan West may be the best backcourt in the country.
by July 29, 2015
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When he was in middle school, the kid known to his family as “Lil’ Zeek” would head to the park or the gym and watch games of basketball. He had yet to hear the sport’s siren call, but as he caught sight of players dunking, captivation quickly came running. Woodley took note of the excitement generated by jams, the way they kick-started momentum for a team. This was fun. He began to think of basketball as something he’d like to pursue.

Fast-forward a few years, and Zikiteran Woodley, now simply known as “Zeek”, is a rim-rattling 6-2 junior guard for Northwestern State. His 22.2 points led the Southland Conference last season and finished fifth best in all DI. Some compare him to Charles Barkley, the mix of power with (maybe) a little better perimeter shooting.

Like Sir Charles in his prime, Woodley is a unique force—a hybrid guard/forward who can quickly enter the realm of the devastating. When he doused McNeese State for 34 points last March, the Cowboys head coach called him unstoppable.

Woodley has a running mate in the Demons backcourt by the name of Jalan West. In that same game against McNeese State, West scored 24 points (all in the second half) and chipped in a tidy 12 assists. It was the 11th double-double of his career. He is 5-10. Woodley and West finished a combined 23-29 from the floor, including 16-17 in that dizzying second half.

Some kinda unstoppable.

It is these types of performances that lend credence to the belief that these two guards might just form the best backcourt in the country. They have certainly been big reasons behind Northwestern State’s recent offensive pyrotechnics. In 2012-13 and ‘13-14, the Demons finished second in the country in scoring before taking top spot in DI last season at a tidy 84 points per game.

Some critics look at the beefed-up production, both individual and team, and cry foul. It’s simply the byproduct of an up-tempo system. What they fail to take into account is the incredible skill, and fastidious effort, that produces these results. Take West and Woodley, who partake in endless games of one-on-one, or cutthroat, or H-O-R-S-E. If Woodley sees West hit a crazy trick shot, he’ll head to the gym to the next day set about mastering it. “We just like to compete against each other and have fun,” says West.

They apply them to games, like the one last February against New Orleans. NSU trailed by 14 early; then, West hit an improbable 53-footer at the halftime buzzer. A furious Demons comeback saw the game tied at 84 with just seconds to play. West got the ball, and calmly hit a fadeaway 27-footer to seal the dub.

“They are special, but both of them have one trait that’s unique—they’re gym rats,” says NSU head coach Mike McConathy. “Jalan has practiced those shots he made in that (New Orleans) game. A gym rat has created that type of situation in their minds, when they’re competing against themselves. It’s just an artist working on a picture, or a writer fleshing out a story. There’s so much work that goes into the final product, and I don’t think people think of it in that light. So when they hit these types of shots, it’s almost deja vu. They’ve already created that moment in their minds.”

Last season, West averaged 20 points, 7.7 assists and 2.5 steals. As a sophomore, he became the first player since Speedy Claxton for Hofstra (and that was ‘99-00) to average at least 19 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds and 2.5 steals.

Come next March, it’ll have been three years since his last NCAA Tournament appearance. West wants another one before he leaves Natchitoches.

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How did the big schools miss them?

That’s the question that plagues this age, when transfer rates keep rising and major levels of production by a player for a team not deemed “high-major” draws stares.

Why aren’t they playing for, like, Kansas?

The answer is this: West and Woodley are throwbacks, in a wonderful sense of the word.

During his 16-year turn at Bossier Parish CC, McConathy coached West’s uncle, Terry. Terry told his nephew that if he attended NSU, he’d have a father figure in addition to a coach. When schools backed off West late on the recruiting trail due to academics, Northwestern State stuck in and offered him the chance to take a redshirt year as a freshman.

Perhaps the biggest factor: Both players came from communities in Louisiana in which they felt cared for. At Northwestern State, that support system is recreated. “A lot of times, we don’t place enough value upon that,” says McConathy. “Not just your immediate family or team, but having people around you that want you to be successful.”

It is a calling card of this program, which permeates both coach and player. When Woodley starred as a senior at Pelican All-Saints High, West, then a redshirt-freshman at NSU, came to watch his games. They’d speak afterward, and West kept his message succinct: He really wanted Woodley as a teammate, and he thought that Northwestern State would be the perfect place for him.

This is West, who finishes conversations with a sincere “Thank you” and “Stay blessed.”

Woodley is self-professedly quiet, and when he began at Northwestern State, it took him some time to grow into his new surroundings. But West was always near. If he wasn’t, the two would text, pinging advice back and forth.

When Woodley began his freshman season, West would talk with him before games. His message? Just play.

“I told him to take the shots he’d taken in high school—we won’t get mad,” West says. Woodley sees him as a big brother. West says he looks up to Woodley as well. “He’s got intangibles I try to add to my game,” West says. “He’s more of a brother than any teammate I’ve ever had.”

McConathy knows the formula that works for him. It helped him build a powerhouse at Bossier Parish, and it rejuvenated the Northwestern State program. When McConathy took over in Natchitoches in 1999, NSU had enjoyed just five winning seasons and no NCAA Tournament bids in its then-24 year Division I history. They’ve now enjoyed three trips to March Madness.

It attracts fans, including captivating subsets on a given night.

Take the 30 to 50 you might find at each home game, who’ve made the 40-mile drive from Pelican. Woodley’s high school was consolidated following his senior year, so now those fans travel to support their favorite son. Their Woodley-themed t-shirts pop out.

A former Pelican school counselor and her husband travel to the road games.

They see a force who continues to add elements to his game.

“A lot of teams don’t know how well Zeek can shoot the ball outside the arc. He’s one of the best shooters on the team,” says West. “He’s also very athletic and very strong. He’s like an undersized big who can play as a guard. He’s a mismatch for anyone—he can post up smaller guards, he can pull big men outside. It’s that Charles Barkley game. He can get anywhere he wants on the court.”

Woodley hearkens back to his beginnings to explain his effect.

“I can shoot it, but I think my athleticism is what makes me so successful. When I dunk, that’s when I get my team going, and the crowd jumping.”

Then he gets to talking about his brother. “Jalan can do it all,” says Woodley. “In practice, he’s blocking shots. He score whenever he wants, but he looks to get teammates involved. He makes everybody on the floor better.”

The NCAA Tournament: West wants back in. Woodley wants to experience his first. With the skill on hand, they might just get there. For now, they’ll continue to inspire a place.

“We all have good days and bad days, but every day is a good day having these kinds of kids in your program,” says McConathy.

Image courtesy of Gary Hardamon, NSU Photographic Services