MANHATTAN — The leading shot-blocker in Kansas State history sat on one side of the room. The soon-to-be leading shot-blocker in Kansas history sat on the other. Whenever they were asked about each other, compliments followed.
That was the scene at Big 12 media days before the start of the college basketball season. When Jordan Henriquez and Jeff Withey meet on Tuesday at Bramlage Coliseum, that mutual respect will once again be noticeable. At least until tip-off.
“I will probably say what’s up to him when they walk out in Bramlage and I walk out in Allen (Fieldhouse)” Henriquez said. “But when it’s on the court, it’s about business.”
Henriquez and Withey are friends. Even though they play for rival programs, they don’t care who knows it. After playing against each other, they spent time together last summer at high school basketball camps. They helped younger players develop their skills during the day and traded stories and tips at night. As the two best shot-blockers in the Big 12, they had plenty to talk about.
Their hope was that they could help each other improve as they entered their senior seasons while keeping enough secrets to themselves to win their head-to-head matchups.
Henriquez, a 6-foot-11 K-State forward, has blocked 31 shots and upped his career total to 177. Withey, a 7-foot Kansas center, has swatted 78 shots and needs 16 blocks to pass Greg Ostertag’s program record of 258.
“K-State is our rival, so I’m not going to just be worried about Jordan, but he is really a great guy,” Withey said. “I like him a lot. We are similar in the way we play. When I go up against a guy like that and we know each other it makes it more fun. You like battling for little things like bragging rights. You want to beat him so you can talk a little smack about it later.”
Henriquez hasn’t done much gloating around Withey lately. He actually owes Withey gratitude for his improved play last season. Henriquez’s junior year can easily be dissected into two categories — before and after Withey.
During the Wildcats’ first 24 games, Henriquez was ordinary. He averaged 5.7 points and 4.4 rebounds and was an afterthought in most Big 12 contests. At one point, former coach Frank Martin got so frustrated with his effort that he briefly suspended him from the team.
That time off was meant to be an attention-grabber, a way to spark some quality play. But it didn’t happen. It wasn’t until K-State hosted Kansas in a Sunflower Showdown rematch that Henriquez finally figured things out. A year earlier, when Henriquez and Withey were both backups, Henriquez outplayed him head-to-head. But this time, few expected that to happen. Withey was on a tear, and has been ever since. The senior center has become an elite big man, averaging 13.1 points and 8.2 rebounds. He is also arguably the nation’s top shot-blocker.
Martin posed a simple question to Henriquez before that game. If Withey, a player with similar size and talents, could drastically improve from one year to the next, why couldn’t he?
“Seeing how dominant he was on the floor and the kind of progress he made from the year before when he didn’t play at all, it made me strive to be as competitive as him,” Henriquez said. “I was going through adversity at the time. When Frank told me that, something clicked and it worked out.”
Henriquez responded by scoring four points, grabbing four rebounds and blocking six shots against Kansas. Not the greatest of games, especially compared to Withey’s 18 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks, but it was a sign of things to come. Henriquez finished the year playing the best basketball of his life. During his final nine games, he averaged 13 points, nine rebounds and almost four blocks.
He looked like a future NBA forward when he scored 14 points and grabbed 17 rebounds against Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. It all traced back to Withey.
Withey is flattered by that story, but also tries to keep it in perspective.
“It makes me want to work harder,” Withey said. “It is a little bit of a compliment for sure, but at the same time I have to keep on working because people are always trying to get the upper hand on me. They never stop working. He is trying to be great. I am trying to be great. Going against each other helps us get better, but at the same time someone is always coming to take your spot. You have to keep working.”
Henriquez hasn’t matched his success from late last season as a senior. Though he has done well recently, playing a key role in wins over Florida, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and TCU, he hasn’t scored more than nine points. His first 10-rebound game came last week. He is averaging 5.1 points and 4.8 rebounds while coming off the bench.
He hasn’t faced Withey yet, though.
“He probably is the best shot-blocker in the country,” Henriquez said. “I watch him all the time. He is a great shot-blocker. His presence around the rim is great. I’m a senior. He’s a senior. We know we are going to be playing each other for the last couple times.”