LAWRENCE — He listens to the question, digesting it for all of a second before answering with a query of his own.
“How many?” KU senior center Jeff Withey asks.
If somebody truly wants to know whether he thinks he can break the NCAA single-season record for blocked shots, Withey first needs a goal in his mind.
A moment later, Withey is told that David Robinson, then a junior at Navy, blocked 207 shots during the 1985-86 season — the first season the NCAA began tracking blocks.
Withey, his 7-foot frame casting a long shadow inside Allen Fieldhouse, pauses for a split-second, an almost quizzical look appearing on his face.
“In one year?” he asks.
Start with the numbers, the ones you can see. That’s the best place to begin.
Last Saturday, Withey scored eight points and blocked five shots as Kansas held Colorado to 37-percent shooting in a 90-54 Jayhawk victory.
By Withey’s early-season standards, his performance was rather pedestrian. But by most normal standards, it was another defensive clinic. Withey’s five blocks gave him 45 for the season, second-most in the nation behind Arizona State’s Jordan Bachynski.
After eight games, Withey leads the NCAA with 5.6 blocks per game, and his block percentage — the percentage of opponents’ shots he blocks while he’s on the floor — is 20.07 percent. As of Wednesday, only 21 teams were blocking more shots per game than Withey.
After a breakout junior season, Withey has gone from an emerging defensive force to a player that can change a game on one end of the floor.
“He’s evolved as a pretty good basketball player,” KU coach Bill Self says, “there’s no question about that.”
In defensive terms, Withey is an All-America talent. According to advanced statistical metrics, Withey’s defense may be worth as much as five to six points per game, on average. But in other terms — namely the ability to block shots while not committing fouls — Withey has a rare gift.
“Just uncanny,” Self says.
Withey has committed just seven fouls in eight games, and his block-to-foul ratio is 6.4-to-1. For comparison, St. Joseph’s C.J. Aiken led the NCAA last season with a 2.5 block-to-foul ratio, according to the analytical website TeamRankings.com. Last season, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis committed one foul for every 2.37 blocks while winning national player of the year honors. But what exactly does the number mean?
“Good timing,” KU senior Elijah Johnson says.
Well, that’s one thing. But for Self, it’s perhaps a little more astounding that Withey commits so few fouls. Every time the subject comes up, Self can’t help himself. He has to mention that maybe Withey needs to be a little more aggressive. But then he also mentions that Withey isn’t just blocking shots. He also has to hedge ball screens on the perimeter, chase down rebounds in traffic and take on any guard that gets loose in the lane.
“I mean that’s unheard of,” Self says, “that a guy could be that good at basically not putting himself in situations where it hurts the team from a foul perspective.”
It began in the sand. That’s what Withey likes to say, anyway. The story goes that when Withey was a kid growing up in San Diego, he would head for the beach and spend hours on the volleyball court.
These are the roots of the muscle memory, he says, the movements that make him so devastating around the rim.
“In volleyball, you jump so much,” Withey says, “and you have to be quick off the ground.”
But how much could those skills really help on the basketball court? Kansas volleyball coach Ray Bechard has thought about this. And if there’s anyone in Lawrence who is qualified to judge, it is Bechard, a former college basketball player who has coached college volleyball for nearly three decades. For instance: Bechard can tell you that legendary Nebraska volleyball coach Terry Pettit once pioneered a hitting technique after watching a basketball player get more extension while making a layup off one foot.
“To me,” Bechard says, “there’s an in-your-face play in volleyball every rally.”
Bechard’s son Brennan is a former KU walk-on that now works on the men’s basketball staff, so Ray has seen plenty of Withey over the last few years.
He has watched Withey take a big step across the lane and explode off two feet, meeting a defender in midair, his legs and arms in concert. For Bechard, it’s not all that different from gathering yourself for a perfectly timed attack move in volleyball.
But there’s only so much value in timing. A good shot-blocker must also have the ability to control his body midflight, to lean in and create chaos but not contact. And Bechard says that’s not all that different from volleyball blocking, where the defender must avoid touching the net.
(It’s) the discipline you have to have,” Bechard says.
Johnson can admit it. Sometimes he gets stuck watching Withey. And why not? When an opposing player gets a step on you, it’s certainly easier to funnel him toward Withey rather than get your hips back in front.
“Sometimes I’ll let them drive past me for Jeff to block the shot,” Johnson says. “I just think it’s really reading the play.”
Self appears to be OK with half of Johnson’s philosophy. Yes, he wants his team playing tighter on the perimeter. It may be easier for opponents to beat KU off the dribble. But the Jayhawks will be hounding shooters, and as Self says, a rushed guard barreling into the lane is generally a pretty good sight for the defense.
But right now, Self says, his guards aren’t pressuring the ball enough — and they’re still getting beat.
“It’s like guys are sizing us up and being able to survey the situation as opposed to us making him feel rushed,” Self says. “And we got to better job of making them feel rushed, because Jeff will block more shots if we get to that point.”
Still, the Jayhawks are holding teams to 35.5-percent shooting. And with Withey protecting the basket, teams are shooting only marginally better on two-pointers (36 percent) than three-pointers (34 percent). According to a Sports Illustrated study, KU has gained possession on 73.8 percent of Withey’s blocks. In other words, three-fourths of Withey’s blocks are missed shots and turnovers.
“I’ve matured so much,” Withey says, “And I think that’s a big part of why I’m successful right now.”
So about that number: 207.
Withey had 140 blocks last season, setting the KU single-season record. He now has 210 blocks for his career, 48 shy of Greg Ostertag’s school mark.
To make serious run at Robinson, Withey would have to average more than 5.3 blocks the rest of the season — and hope that KU makes another run deep into March. It’s lofty — perhaps even a little out of reach.
But after a second of thought, Withey is ready for another answer.
“I’ll try for it,” he says. “Every day I go out there, I want to go block shots and help my team win.”