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March 5, 2012

Withey blocked his way to defensive POY

MORE KU COVERAGE: Only in JayhawkSlant.com

In less than one full season, Jeff Withey has gone from playing a limited role as a freshman and sophomore to a likely first round selection in next year's NBA draft. Looking to make a deep run in March, Kansas will need Withey to continue his stellar play during the month of March.

Big things might have been expected from Jeff Withey this season, but nobody could have possibly expected the 7-foot-0, 235-pound center from San Diego, Calif., to elevate his game to such heights.

He now figures to be a key player for Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament. The Jayhawks, the top seed, begin play Thursday afternoon in a quarterfinal game against Texas A&M.

Withey, coming into this season, had appeared in just 41 games in his first two seasons and, during that same stretch, hadn't logged more than 17 minutes in any game.

During the first 31 games of the year, Withey averaged 9.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game. Additionally, he connected on 55.0 percent of his shots from the field and 81.8 percent of his free-throws.

It's safe to say that Withey faced a career defining moment during KU's trip to Columbia, Mo., on February 4. Despite leading by eight points late in the second half, Kansas dropped an absolute heartbreaker to Missouri, 74-71.

Thomas Robinson scored a team-high 25 points and pulled down 13 rebounds, while Tyshawn Taylor added 21 points and Elijah Johnson chipped in 11 points to go along with four assists.

Against Missouri, Withey, in 23 minutes, was 0-of-1 from the field, pulled down four rebounds and was held scoreless.

"Against Missouri, I didn't score at all," said Withey on Saturday night. "I wasn't a factor (against Missouri) and Coach (Bill Self) was really angry about that. He feels like I just let them (MU) kind of punk me. The last couple of practices have been tough.

"He's been getting on me and getting me to be more physical in practice," he added. "He's a good motivator and these guys (teammates) are too. I'm just trying to be more positive and more aggressive."

That increased physical play has been a surprise to Rivals.com national basketball recruiting analyst Jerry Meyer.

Meyer thought Whitey had star potential out of high school - he ranked him as the No. 8 center in the Class of 2008 (right behind UNC's Tyler Zeller) - but he didn't think he would develop into a physical force.

"He is another example of the great job Kansas does at developing big men," Meyer said. "The most interesting twist, though, is that Withey wasn't expected to be a dominant defensive force in college, but more of a solid all-around skilled type big man."

A valuable lesson was learned on February 4. Looking back at Withey's play in Columbia, it might have been a blessing in disguise.

Prior to the Missouri game, Withey hadn't scored more than 15 points this season. Since being held scoreless, KU's junior big man scored a career high 25 on the road against Baylor, 18 against Oklahoma State, 18 against Kansas State in Manhattan, and 11 against Texas A&M in college station.

Furthermore, Withey dominated the glass to the tune of 20 rebounds against Oklahoma State, added 11 rebounds against Kansas State in Manhattan, and pulled down 15 combined rebounds against Texas Tech and Texas A&M.

As if those numbers weren't impressive enough, Withey has become the Big 12's top shot blocker.

Withey swatted six shots against Kansas State in Lawrence, seven against Iowa State, eight against Texas A&M, seven against Oklahoma State, nine at Kansas State, four against Texas Tech, four at Texas A&M and three against Texas in Lawrence on Saturday.

Not surprisingly, Withey leads the Big 12 in blocked shots with 100, a total that ranks fifth on the conference single-season chart and second on the Kansas list. Sixty-five of those rejections came in league games, setting a Big 12 record for conference play.

Withey is the fourth Jayhawk to win the top defensive honor since it began in 2005-06, including three times in the past four seasons. He joins Mario Chalmers (2007 and 2009) and Cole Aldrich (2010) in earning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

"I'm really happy for Jeff because I don't believe anybody in our league changes the game by blocking or altering (shots) better than Jeff," Self said.

With the Big 12 and NCAA tournament approaching, Kansas will absolutely need Withey to man the paint. The Jayhawks, according to most, are in the driver's seat for the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region.

As it's already been proven on a number of occasions this season, Kansas, when at its best, has the ability to trade blows with the very best teams college basketball has to offer.

Kansas, with Withey controlling the paint and protecting the rim, is a legitimate Final Four contenders when clicking on all cylinders.

Prior to this season, Self, during a two-year stretch, guided Kansas to 68-6 record. Still, the Jayhawks failed to reach the Final Four for the second time under Self.

This season, Kansas wasn't expected to contend for National Championship No. 2 under Self, but the Jayhawks, as Self has said many times during his career at Kansas, "are in the game."

Much of being in the game is due to the play of big man Jeff Withey.



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