LAWRENCE — He was entering his senior season, preparing to be Big Man on Campus — figuratively, this time — and Kansas senior Jeff Withey can’t quite explain what happened. Maybe it was fall jitters, he says. Maybe he just had a string of poor practices. But he kept showing up to Allen Fieldhouse and leaving a little down, another workout where it just didn’t feel right.
“I was kind of in a funk the last month and a half really,” said Withey, a 7-foot center.
The fog carried over into KU’s two exhibition games. Withey had just seven points in the opener against Emporia State before playing a quiet (and scoreless) first half against Washburn on Monday.
“The first half wasn’t very good for me,” Withey said.
Perhaps there’s a tendency to put too much stock in exhibition games. Withey was essentially playing with a bench full of teammates that have never played a college basketball game — and who are still learning some of KU’s most basic sets on offense.
But Withey was also getting his first taste of what it’s like to be The Man. With All-American forward and Big 12 player of the year Thomas Robinson out the door, the Jayhawks are suddenly without a proven scoring option in the post. Enter Withey, who averaged nine points per game last season in his first full season as a starter.
“There’s a lot of pressure, definitely,” Withey said. “But I think that last year, I was able to build myself into a big role. And this year, I’m just gonna build off last year.”
Withey will get his first chance Friday night when No. 7 Kansas opens its regular season against Southeast Missouri State at Allen Fieldhouse. It’s more than just Withey, of course. After a sloppy performance against Washburn on Monday, Kansas is now just four days away from playing No. 14 Michigan State at the Champions Classic in Atlanta. To start the season off right, KU will need Withey to put his funk behind him.
“Michigan State is gonna be a really tough game,” Withey said, “and we gotta get right.”
Kansas coach Bill Self has said that he believes Withey can be an All-American type player, while Withey has set a more modest goal. He’d rather not say it too loud. But if you catch the mild-mannered Withey in the right moment, it comes out.
“I want to be the Big 12 player of the year,” Withey said at Big 12 media day last month. “But we’ll see. I don’t want to make any predictions or anything like that. That’s just a personal goal.”
From a defensive standpoint, Withey is positioned to be the sort of force that could anchor one of the best defenses in the country. According to advanced metrics, Withey was the best shot blocker in the country last season. He finished the season with a KU and Big 12 record 140 blocks. And when he was on the floor, he blocked 15.3 percent of opponents’ field-goal attempts, the best mark in the country.
“I think he’s the best defensive big guy in the country,” Self said. “He may have been that last year. If you eliminate (Kentucky’s) Anthony Davis, I think you can make a strong case that he was.”
Still, Withey’s season may ultimately be judged by two things: The development of his offensive game and whether he can help Kansas live up to its top 10 billing.
For now, Withey is still learning how to play without Robinson. There are more touches inside. But there are also more defenders cheating in his direction.
“It’s really exciting to be able to be the focus point down low,” Withey said. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
Peters, Lucas could redshirt — Kansas coach Bill Self said Thursday that freshman forwards Zach Peters and Landen Lucas were both candidates to redshirt this season.
Peters, a native of Plano, Texas, has been battling a nagging rotator-cuff injury in his left shoulder. Peters’ status has improved, Self said, but it’s still unclear when he might be back on the floor. Peters was one of KU’s most consistent frontcourt players during the team’s trip to Europe this past summer.
“If he can’t get back soon, we have no choice but to redshirt him,” Self said, “because he’ll be so far behind, he won’t be able to catch up.”
Lucas, a native of Portland, will sit out Friday’s opener and will likely miss Tuesday’s game against Michigan State in Atlanta.
“He is definitely a guy that we are strongly considering redshirting,” Self said. “And we visited with Landen and his family about it and they are in agreement with that. But it’s not 100 percent sure, because he could still play two weeks from now.”
As of now, Lucas is projected to be behind Jeff Withey, Perry Ellis, Jamari Traylor and Kevin Young in the frontcourt rotation. Self could also use junior Justin Wesley as a fifth big man off the bench. Self said he believes Lucas could become an impact player in time, but that a season of maturing could benefit him in the long run.