University of Kansas

Jayhawks want to count on Withey

When you’re 7 feet tall, you can’t hide. It’s hard to miss when you do something right on the basketball court — and when you don’t do anything.

Dunks and blocks stick out. So are getting beat on defense or missing a chance to score.

“The price of being really tall, I guess,” Kansas center Jeff Withey said with a smile.

As the Jayhawks go into Friday night’s NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal against North Carolina State in St. Louis, the view from the microscope tightens.

At times, Withey can dominate a game like a Mack truck barreling down the interstate.

When he blocked four shots in the second half of last Friday’s tournament-opening victory over Detroit, KU coach Bill Self said, “There is no question the best player on the floor at that time was Jeff.”

Other times, you see his No. 5 out there but nothing is happening.

Withey’s quietest moments come when KU is playing smaller and quick teams that like to run, such as Missouri or Purdue.

He had two points in two games against Mizzou, although a twisted ankle also limited him in the second game. Purdue’s motion offense left him spinning — and playing only 15 minutes. He took only three shots, scored four points and had two rebounds in the 63-60 victory.

“Coach pushes me to play harder against smaller guys,” said Withey, who averages 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds. “I’m definitely trying.”

Now comes N.C. State, which Self described as quick and athletic. While the Wolfpack doesn’t start anyone over 6-8, 6-9 DeShawn Painter is the first player off the bench. And 6-8 starter Richard Howell brings a load at 250 pounds.

So the Pack is not exactly an MU or Purdue.

“It should be a game Jeff can play,” Self said.

That Withey hasn’t figured out how to play against quicker teams is nothing new for even a talented 7-footer. Particularly for one lacking experience.

Although a junior, he came into the year with a total of 207 minutes of playing time and five minutes of NCAA Tournament experience.

He had some early moments this season — even playing well in a loss to Kentucky — that raised expectations. After laying an egg at Missouri in early February, Withey went on a tear of averaging 16.2 points and 10.2 rebounds over the next five games before disappearing again when MU showed up in Lawrence.

He’s been hit and miss in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament.

“I think he’s playing as well as he can,” Self said. “Jeff’s not going to be the primary go-to guy offensively.”

Of course not. That’s Thomas Robinson.

“But he’s going to have some nights where he can get 12, 15, 17 points,” Self added. “He can consistently rebound and impact around the rim.”

No question about that. The Big 12’s defensive player of the year ranks nationally in blocked shots with 116, including 19 blocks in the last five games.

“Everyone loves to dunk,” Withey said. “But if someone is trying to dunk on you and you block it, that’s the best feeling ever.”

His volleyball background has paid off, helping him to develop body control and the importance of going straight up for a block to avoid fouling. From the age of 8, he played volleyball on Mission Beach near his home in San Diego with friends and family, including his sister who went on to play at Oral Roberts.

In high school he would bash blocks into the fifth row of the seats, but he quickly figured out that wasn’t the best idea. Again, he returned to his volleyball skills to tap the blocks back to himself or a teammate.

“You block it to a teammate and you’re probably going to get a dunk on the other end,” Withey said. “That’s a lot better than putting it in the seats.”

Defense is where his heart is. And where the Jayhawks need it to be the most.

“He’s our anchor defensively,” point guard Tyshawn Taylor said. “He gets credit for four or blocks a game, but he alters four or five more. He makes it hard for the other guys.”

But Taylor wouldn’t mind seeing more offense from Withey.

“There was a point this year where I told him, `Jeff, the only way you pass the ball back out of the post is if you’re double teamed. Any other time, go score, get fouled,’ ” Taylor said.

After all, Withey is KU’s top free-throw shooter at 78 percent.

“If he gets the ball and is aggressive,” Taylor said, “we’re going to get one or two points almost every time.”

There it is again — if he’s aggressive. Seven feet comes with expectations.

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