One of the country’s most prolific shot-blockers nearly gave up basketball before high school. Jeff Withey was close to his 14th birthday, a San Diego kid who did San Diego things.
His older sister, Michelle, was a standout volleyball player who would play at Oral Roberts. His older brother, Chris, would become a firefighter known to surf the famed Swami’s Beach in Encinitas when his shift ended. And this meant that Withey spent hours of his childhood on the volleyball court, much of it in the sand.
“There was a time I gave up basketball and started playing volleyball,” says Withey, KU’s 7-foot center.
This, of course, came before a seven-inch growth spurt during high school. Before he began waking up at 6 on summer mornings to work out with a cast of current and future NBA players. Before he landed at Kansas after a short stint at Arizona. And before he helped the Jayhawks to the Final Four by averaging five blocks in the tournament.
On Thursday afternoon, as Kansas prepared for its national semifinal against Ohio State on Saturday night, KU coach Bill Self called Withey the most improved player in the Jayhawks’ program this season — perhaps one of the most improved post players he’s ever coached. One season after holding down a spot near the end of the bench, Withey is averaging 9.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 blocks while winning Big 12 defensive player of the year honors.
“I didn’t think that could happen,” Self says of the accolade.
But listen to Withey, and those who were with him during his days in San Diego, and it becomes clear that so much of Withey’s ability on the basketball floor has its roots in his other sport.
The art of the blocked shot requires timing, size and coordination. And Withey says he mastered his craft on the volleyball courts near Mission Beach.
“The timing of blocking shots,” Withey says. “In volleyball, you jump so much, and you have to be quick off the ground. And I think that helps me a ton with rebounding, blocking shots, going up for quick shots.”
After a breakout season, Withey’s evolution continued last week in St. Louis. He blocked 10 shots in a Sweet 16 victory over North Carolina State, and then followed that with two game-sealing blocks in the final minutes of Kansas’ 80-67 victory over North Carolina in the regional final.
“It was always in the works,” says Trent Suzuki, a strength and conditioning guru who worked with Withey while he was in high school. “It just took a little bit longer, because he had to find a home to play at.”
Suzuki says Withey walked through his door around his sophomore year of high school. Suzuki had spent years tutoring fellow San Diego product Chase Budinger, now a member of the Houston Rockets, and Withey, who finally dropped volleyball for good during his freshman year, simply wanted to get better.
The workouts would begin at 6 a.m. at La Costa Canyon High School. Back squats. Romanian deadlifts. Step-ups. Lunges. Sometimes NBA player Luke Walton, another San Diego native, would show up, too. The focus, Suzuki says, was on the legs.
“When his legs get to the point where they’re elite-level strength,” Suzuki would say, “that’s when he’s ready for the pros.”
Like Withey, Budinger was a basketball player who had spent his childhood playing volleyball. And Suzuki says it’s no secret that volleyball can be the perfect complement to basketball. During a basketball game, Suzuki says, a player may jump with maximum effort 20 times in a half.
“In volleyball,” he says, “You can jump 20 times in one point. So it really is a great crossover sport.”
After a few years working with Suzuki, Withey chose to follow Budinger to the University of Arizona. But that plan changed when health issues forced legendary Arizona coach Lute Olson to retire during the first semester of Withey’s freshman year. A few months later, Withey had landed in Lawrence.
“I knew that the (KU) coaching staff would make me better,” he says of the decision to transfer.
When Withey arrived on campus, he was something close to a 210-pound lightpost. In those first seasons, Andrea Hudy, the program’s strength and conditioning coordinator, took on Withey as one of her many projects, mandating that he shovel in 3,500 calories per day.
But the extra meals didn’t necessarily translate into extra minutes. During the 2009-10 season, Withey was buried behind future NBA post players Cole Aldrich and Marcus and Markieff Morris. He played a total of 45 minutes as Kansas earned a No. 1 seed before falling hard against Northern Iowa in the round of 32. Last season, Aldrich was gone. But the Morris twins and Thomas Robinson remained. Withey’s minutes picked up slightly (6.2 per game). But by the time Kansas lost to VCU in the Elite Eight, he was less than an afterthought, playing four total minutes in the Jayhawks’ final 10 games.
What people didn’t see those two years, Withey says, were all the practice battles he logged against NBA talent.
“I’m used to going against All-Americans,” he says.
Now Withey is in New Orleans, his volleyball roots helping turn the skinny 7-footer into a game-changing force on defense. He’s third in the nation with 129 blocks — behind only Kentucky’s Anthony Davis (175) and Northwestern State’s William Mosley (130). With 10 more, Withey would set the NCAA Tournament record, surpassing the mark of 29 set by Florida’s Joakim Noah in 2006.
“This tournament is an awesome opportunity for a lot of people,” Withey says.
All those showdowns with Aldrich and Robinson could take on added importance on Saturday, when Withey will likely be matched up with Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, an All-American who missed Ohio State’s loss at Allen Fieldhouse on Dec. 10. It’s a defensive showdown that will require timing, size and coordination — one more challenge for the beach kid from San Diego who found a home in Kansas.
“It’s taken me a little bit longer than I wanted to, to be able to show that I could play the game,” Withey says. “But being (here) right now definitely makes it all worth it.”