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February 17, 2012
How Jeff Withey Happened
The Inside Story

by C.J. Moore

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Bill Self had seen enough. All year Self had been on Jeff Withey to be more aggressive. Days before he had gone scoreless in 24 minutes at Missouri. And now, Withey had failed to go after a loose ball at practice.

"Touch every stair in the building!" Self screamed.

Three games later, Self and the rest of the nation are trying to wrap their heads around how KU's 7-footer could go from invisible to outshining Thomas Robinson.

"It's unbelievable," Self said. "Players are in his face getting after his butt after the Missouri game. Then all of the sudden, you make a couple baskets and get your confidence back and next thing you know...."

This was late Monday night in Manhattan, and Self's voice trailed off, as you could see the wheels turning in his head as he tried to comprehend, just like all of us, how Withey pulled off the turnaround.

The numbers alone are tough to comprehend. Withey's three-game stretch is as good as any three-game stretch of any big man in the country. Take a look.

At Baylor: 25 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks
Vs. Oklahoma State: 18 points, 20 rebounds, 7 blocks
At K-State: 18 points, 11 rebounds, 9 blocks
Average: 20.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6.3 blocks

Compare those numbers to the best three-game stretches by All-American candidates Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson, and Jared Sullinger.

Davis (Jan. 11-17): 19.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.6 blocks
Robinson (Dec. 6-19): 22.7 points, 12 rebounds, 0.7 blocks
Sullinger (Jan. 3-10): 22.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 0.3 blocks

How it happened
Before the Missouri game, Withey was already playing some of his best basketball of the season -- just not so emphatically. He had scored in double figures six straight games and averaged 11.7 points. During that stretch, he had seven blocks against Baylor and eight against Texas A&M.

Still, Withey had been hearing it from Self to go after the ball with more aggression and grab more rebounds. That's not so easy to do when you play next to a rebounding hog like Robinson, who leads the nation in defensive rebounding percentage.

Self's main complaint after the Missouri game was Withey allowed himself to be obsolete. He had Missouri guard Kim English guarding him, but he didn't demand the ball. KU's guards also didn't make it a point to find the big man.

Baylor helped change that. The focus of the Bears' zone defense was to slow Robinson. Every time he touched it, Robinson was surrounded by two or three players.

The Jayhawks adjusted late in the first half that night by attacking with either Tyshawn Taylor penetrating into the middle of the zone or by throwing the ball to the short corner. When Taylor penetrated, he found Withey. When the ball went to the short corner, Withey dove to the rim and got easy baskets.

The Oklahoma State and K-State games weren't much different. Neither team played zone, but in both games all of Withey's baskets were at the rim. In fact, over the last three games Withey has 11 layups or tip-ins, five dunks and one jumper, which he shot inside the paint.

Kansas is using Withey in much the same way that Missouri uses Ricardo Ratliffe. Ratliffe is incredibly efficient because he gets a majority of his baskets off the penetration of MU's guards or on putbacks.

Withey, like Ratliffe, has put himself in the right spot at the right time. To his credit, he's finishing at the rim (20 of 31 in the last three games).

"That's why you run your offense, is to get easy baskets," Self said. "It's not like he's catching the ball eight feet out, backing his guy down and shaking a guy, then going over his other shoulder. That's not what he's doing. He's making easy plays and guys are doing a good job of getting him the ball."

Withey: Anthony Davis-like
What really separates Withey's three-game stretch from the All-Americans, other than Davis, is his impact on the defensive end. Withey has 19 blocks in the last three games, and Baylor, OSU and KSU combined to make only 37 percent of their two-point field goal attempts.

Kansas is second in the nation at two-point FG percentage defense at 39.3 percent, and Kentucky is No. 1 at 37.7 percent. It's pretty simple to figure out why: Kentucky has Davis protecting the rim and KU has Withey.

Davis has received all the publicity for leading the nation in blocks and for his 15.2 block percentage, but Withey is not very far off at 15.0. Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn has been tracking Davis' blocks this season. Kentucky, according to Winn's research, gains possession an impressive 56.8 percent of the time when Davis blocks a shot.

Withey is also a master at blocking a shot to a teammate or himself -- he credits playing volleyball growing up -- so I researched how often KU gains possession of a Withey block, how often Withey blocks a shot to himself and how often a Withey block goes out of bounds.

Withey blocks: 88
KU gains possession: 56 times (63.6 percent)
Withey rebounds block: 14
Withey block out of bounds: 5

Davis might be the better shot blocker by a hair, but Withey's blocks have resulted in a higher percentage of takeaways.

Will Withey keep it up?
One lost statistic from Withey's performance at K-State was that he played a season-high 37 minutes. He has only played 60 percent of available minutes this season, and against Missouri, Self was forced to go small to match up with the Tigers' four-guard lineup.

However, if Self checked the stats after the Missouri game, he would have found that the Jayhawks were still better with Withey on the floor, as they outscored the Tigers by 12 points in his 23 minutes. Even when Withey is not asserting himself on offense, his defense is valuable enough to keep him on the court. In the last three games Withey has played 82 percent of the available minutes.

It's hard to believe Withey will continue to put up the points he's been scoring, although it was hard to believe that he would respond to going scoreless at Missouri like he has, and he has defied the odds all season.

Withey was one of the main reasons before the season that many doubted Kansas could contend for an eighth straight Big 12 title and be one of the top teams in the country. After all, he couldn't even crack Self's rotation last season -- he averaged 6.2 minutes per game and had 12 DNPs.

As Withey ran the Fieldhouse steps last week, he thought about what he meant to his team and how he was letting them down. If the Jayhawks end up winning the Big 12 and have success in March, the turning point, Self will say, was a practice in early February when Jeff Withey decided not to go after a loose ball.

"Ever since then, I know Coach depends on me and my teammates depend on me to play great, so I needed to step it up," Withey said. "I don't want to be running bleachers anymore, that's for sure."

C.J. Moore is a writer in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmoore4.

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