LAWRENCE — Jeff Withey had an ambitious goal, something he’d been mulling all offseason. But he preferred to keep it secret, like a seasonlong covert operation as he began his final year at Kansas.
This was back in the fall, and Withey and the Jayhawks had yet to play a game. Perhaps it felt odd for the mild-mannered Withey to say anything that might be perceived as brash. So he quietly stumbled into his goal.
“I want to be the Big 12 player of the year,” Withey said. “But we’ll see. I don’t want to make any predictions or anything like that. That’s just a personal goal.”
More than four months later, as Kansas prepares to face Baylor on Saturday in its Big 12 finale, Withey’s personal goal is within reach. He’s averaging 13.8 points and 8.6 rebounds for the fourth-ranked Jayhawks, and he leads the nation with 120 blocked shots. But Withey’s player-of-the-year candidacy may hinge on more than just personal numbers or performance.
Kansas (26-4, 14-3 Big 12), enters Saturday tied with Kansas State for first place in the Big 12, and the Jayhawks need a victory at Baylor to guarantee a share of a ninth straight Big 12 title. And with the conference race still in flux, the Big 12 Player of the Year race is also reaching a muddy homestretch.
Withey, the most valuable senior on the eight-time champs, is a logical choice. But so is K-State senior Rodney McGruder, who has led the Wildcats to the brink of their first league title since 1977. Or what about Oklahoma State freshman point guard Marcus Smart, who elevated the Cowboys from a potential NIT squad to a team that won at Allen Fieldhouse?
And then there’s this: Withey’s most potent competition might come from inside his own locker room. KU freshman Ben McLemore is averaging more points (16.5) than McGruder or Smart — and he dropped at least 30 points in three Big 12 games.
Kansas coach Bill Self is biased, of course. But if you ask him to be unbiased, he says all four of those players have legitimate cases.
“I want to wait until the end of the season is here,” Self said. “You could make a strong case, if you look at statistics and all that stuff, that Ben or Jeff could be Big 12 Player of the Year.
“But could K-State only have three (Big 12) losses without McGruder having a big year? Or could Oklahoma State be ranked in the top 15 in the country without Marcus Smart having a big year? So you could spin it to whatever way you want to spin it.”
The same, of course, could be said about the Big 12 coach of the year race, which could pit Self against K-State coach Bruce Weber. Self wasn’t so noncommittal about this award.
“I would vote for Bruce Weber,” Self said. “I think that he’s had them be as consistent as anybody in the league.”
Consistent, yes. But champions? The Wildcats still need a victory Saturday at Oklahoma State. And maybe it would be better to sort out all this award stuff after the dust has settled.
If KU or K-State were able to win the league outright, that could tip the scales in favor of Withey/McLemore or McGruder for player of the year. But even if Kansas finishes all alone in first, Self wonders if Withey and McLemore could split the Kansas delegation.
“I think you see this quite often in things,” Self said, “that guys can kind of split the vote. I hope that not the case in our situation.”
That could open the door for Smart or McGruder, who said Thursday that he was much more concerned with winning a title than postseason honors. Of course, that may be exactly the point. McGruder, who is averaging 14.8 points, has a case built on team success as much as individual flash.
“That’s neat, but it doesn’t really mean anything,” McGruder said. “Winning the Big 12 Conference, that means more to me than anything. That speaks more to our whole team.”
Fair enough. So perhaps we need an unbiased observer, someone not confined by the demands of the conference race. Former coach Fran Fraschilla has spent the season on Big 12 sidelines, serving as the analyst on ESPN’s Big Monday broadcasts. He has seen all four players, and his answer is rooted less in team success and focused more on impact.
“I’ve said since (December) that McLemore has a good chance of being the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft, and I stand by that,” Fraschilla said. “Jeff Withey dominates games defensively. I have been a huge fan of Rodney McGruder and what he has done. But I would lean toward (Smart), because there is no way Oklahoma State has made the jump they have without him in the lineup.”
For now, with the season still incomplete, there are no perfect answers. Withey can still make good on his goal if he dominates against Baylor. And McGruder and Smart will match up in Stillwater.
Self and Weber, meanwhile, will try to clinch some team hardware. And on Thursday, both coaches were more focused on that.
“I’m not sure,” Weber said. “A lot of times, if you win the league you should have a lot of opportunities to win (awards). That’s when you get the accolades, when you’re in the top part of it. I hope voters wait and make the decision after this weekend.”
The Eagle’s Kellis Robinett contributed to this report.