Night Line: Jeff Withey’s Massive Improvement Keys Another Strong Kansas SeasonPosted by EJacoby on February 14th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor to RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Kansas’ Bill Self is making a strong push for National Coach of the Year recently, putting his Jayhawks in position for their eighth consecutive Big 12 regular season title despite arguably the least talented team he’s had during the streak. Monday night’s road victory over Kansas State, 59-53, improved KU to 21-5 and 11-2 in the Big 12 to keep pace with Missouri in the loss column of the conference standings. But this time the win wasn’t the result of a dominant Thomas Robinson night or the game strategy of Self. Instead, it was the powerful performance of center Jeff Withey that led the team to another victory. This new leading Jayhawk is playing out of his mind and has emerged as the major threat that has put KU back in the driver’s seat in the Big 12 race. As the season progresses, the 7’0” Withey is getting stronger in all facets of the game, turning Kansas into an even tougher matchup than before.
Just 10 days ago, Kansas dropped a road game to Missouri to fall into a tie with the Tigers for first place in the Big 12, and it looked like the Jayhawks just might be missing something to propel them to another conference title. In that game, only Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor were able to score consistently and play at a high level offensively. Elijah Johnson had 11 points but wanted nothing to do with the ball on the final possession that could have tied the game. Withey played his usual strong defense, but failed to score and was a complete non-factor offensively. Even though Kansas nearly won that road game, the Tigers seemed to have more scoring options on that night.
Fast forward to today and KU is now coming off a massive victory over in-state rival Kansas State in the Octagon of Doom to keep pace with Mizzou for tops in the conference. It’s these same Jayhawks, but with a new twist: Withey, of all people, has become an interior force on both ends. The junior center had an historic night on Monday, recording a near-triple double with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and nine blocks, becoming the first player to put up those kind of numbers in a conference game in three years. The last player to do so was Connecticut center and future #2 NBA overall draft pick Hasheem Thabeet in 2009. Withey was the obvious difference-maker here, as he has been in the two previous games as well. He followed up his goose egg against Missouri by going for 25 points in a blowout win at Baylor last Wednesday, then repeating that effort with a ridiculous 18-point, 20-rebound, seven-block performance in Saturday’s victory over Oklahoma State. This Jayhawk has seemingly burst onto the scene as a dominant player out of nowhere — call it Jeremy Lin-esque if you will.
What in the world has gotten into him? In the past three games, he is averaging 20.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 6.3 blocks per game while shooting 65% from the field and 81% from the free throw line at over eight attempts per game, and this includes two road games against top conference competition. He was named Big 12 Player of the Week for his efforts over the past seven days, and he’s clearly an early favorite to repeat that honor this coming week. This all comes from a guy who was contributing just 8.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per contest up until 10 days ago. Throughout the season Withey has been spectacular on the defensive end, and he continues to lead the conference in blocked shots (3.4 BPG) and block percentage (15.2%) by a wide margin. In addition, he’s been a tremendous asset at the free-throw stripe, hitting at 85% from the line (fifth in the conference), a rare feat for a seven-footer. The sudden emergence of an offensive game is giving this junior a complete repertoire that makes No. 4 Kansas all that much more dangerous.
Kansas now looks to be in its familiar position as Big 12 favorites. Missouri is there as well, but these two teams play again in two weeks, and next time in Lawrence. That game may decide the conference championship, and the Jayhawks will like their chances in a place where they simply do not lose. KU is a ridiculous 158-8 at home under Bill Self, and 72-1 in their past 73 games there with a loss last season to Texas as the only blemish. The Jayhawks have four other regular season games to play too, and fans have to be excited for what’s coming next. Thomas Robinson continues to be a National Player of the Year candidate and the team has played exceptional defense all season. Enter the newest seven-foot sensation in college basketball and KU has what it takes to make it eight straight Big 12 titles, one of the many lofty but achievable goals this season for the powerhouse program.