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In praise of Jeff Withey, Kansas’ unheralded frontcourt savior

Feb 9, 2012, 10:18 AM EST

spt-120208-withey AP

If Scott Drew never coaches against Jeff Withey again, he’ll be just fine with that.

Kansas’ 7-foot junior center has defied convention when playing Baylor this season. The Bears feature a lineup of future pros in Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and possibly even Quincy Acy. Yet Withey – who until this season languished on KU’s bench – has played like the lottery pick in both games.

His 10-point, 10-rebound (9 offensive) performance in their Jan. 16 win was overshadowed by Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. So he topped that with a career-high 25 points in Wednesday’s 68-54 win.

“I don’t know why Withey likes playing against us so much, but he looks like an All-American when he does,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.

No joke. Withey missed just two field-goal attempts and made 9 of 11 free throws and surpassed his career high in points by halftime. He’s always been the Jayhawks’ unheralded weapon on defense – few players block a higher percentage of shots – but the scoring was a welcome sight for KU. Robinson had foul trouble and was ineffective early.

That left things to Withey.

“Coach[Bill Self] definitely got into my head and just told me that I need to be able to play,” Withey said. “I can’t go games where I don’t score. … My teammates definitely trusted me. They made great plays and got me open.”

Self (and assistant Danny Manning, who’s tutelage is essential to Withey’s development) has been brilliant in handling Withey. His increased role has freed up Robinson on offense and defense and given the Jayhawks some size advantages. But Withey’s also just found his niche.

From C.J. Moore’s blog:

Self deserves much of the credit for getting Withey with it against Baylor’s zone. The Bears got out to a hot start, in large part, because they were able to frustrate Thomas Robinson. Any time Robinson got the ball, the Bears surrounded him with three defenders. Sloppiness ensued.

Self calmed his team down after Baylor’s initial burst, and then he figured out that so much attention was being paid to Robinson, Withey would have a chance to get some good looks around the rim. The Jayhawks went to work by getting with the ball two different ways: Tyshawn Taylor’s penetration and getting the ball to the short corner.

“We found a little hole in the short corner, playing big to big, and that was a big bonus for us,” Self said.

As Moore writes, the more Withey plays, the more Kansas will benefit. It’s that simple. His offensive game continues to evolve and there’s no question his presence boosts Robinson. In fact, Withey may now be Kansas’ third option given Elijah Johnson’s prolonged shooting slump.

But as Baylor will attest, that’s not a bad thing.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.