University of Kansas

Bob Lutz: Davis, Withey make for great middle matchup

Kentucky coach John Calipari thought he was going to pull one on Anthony Davis. Calipari, asked Sunday about Davis’ unusual ability to block shots, turned to Davis with a question of his own.

“Do you know who Bill Russell is?’’ Calipari quizzed his freshman center.

“Yes,’’ Davis replied.

“Who did he play for?” Calipari asked.

“Celtics,’’ Davis said, almost before the question had left Calipari’s mouth.

“Give him a hand,’’ Calipari told the gathered media. “I love it.’’

Russell is the greatest shot blocker in basketball history. But there’s a lot of history to be made yet by Davis, a 7-footer who has the innate combination of size, athleticism, timing and desire that allows him to be a world-class swatter of shots.

But if Davis is the finest shot blocker going in college basketball, Kansas’ Jeff Withey could be No. 2 with a bullet.

All Withey has done in KU’s five NCAA Tournament games is block 27 shots, including 10 in a virtuoso performance against North Carolina State in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

He got seven more in Saturday’s national semifinal win over Ohio State and provided Buckeyes star center Jared Sullinger with at least a month full of nightmares.

As if Monday’s Kansas-Kentucky national championship didn’t have enough intrigue, this battle of the really tall shot blockers has a place at the table.

“The thing about it is that guys like Anthony and guys like Jeff cover up mistakes,’’ Kansas coach Bill Self said. “We can kind of gamble on the perimeter sometimes and know that those guys are forcing them into a situation that could lead to a run-out for us. Of course, Anthony does the same thing for Kentucky. He’s probably the best shot blocker in the country.’’

No “probably” about it.

Davis’ 4.6 average is the best nationally. His 180 blocks are the fifth most in single-season history.

Withey averages 3.6 blocks, fourth nationally, but has been at his rejecting best in the NCAA Tournament.

It’s not just the shots these guys get a paw on, either. Imagine how many shots they change during the course of a game.

Neither player simply plants his feet inside the lane and waits for the next trespasser, even though that is a part of their shot-blocking routine. Davis, especially, stalks the floor and can block a perimeter shot just as easily as he can snatch one close to the basket.

“He was 6-foot-3 and grew to 6-10,’’ Calipari said. “He’s nimble like a guard. He doesn’t block it in your hands, he lets you release the ball. That’s what great shot blockers do. They never try to get it in your hand. Anthony’s blocking more shots away from his man than his own man. That means he’s nimble, quick to the ball, that’s he’s got a quick twitch.’’

Much has been made of Withey’s volleyball background to explain why he has been so good at blocking shots. But it’s much more than that. There’s a killer instinct inside the mild-mannered Withey that can’t be explained by his background in volleyball.

“I think my mind is just kind of blank when I play,’’ Withey said. “When I see someone driving down the middle, I know I’m the one who has to step up and block the shot. I definitely don’t want to foul, so in my mind I’m thinking ‘straight up’ the whole time. Even if they hit my body, I am long enough to block the shot.’’

Davis is also a fantastic, if underused, scorer. And though he could use another 20 pounds or so on a frame that has room for them, he is a rebounding force. He is the national player of the year for a reason, and one of the biggest is his ability to change a game by keeping opposing players skittish about coming into the lane.

Louisville used an interesting approach during its semifinal loss to Kentucky on Saturday night. The Cardinals were successful attacking Davis, but only because of their ability to grab offensive rebounds. With Davis in the air blocking or changing shots, Louisville’s players were able to chase down missed shots and put some back in. That helped the Cardinals keep the game close for a while.

Eventually, though, Davis took over the game with his defense. Withey has done the same in the tournament for Kansas.

They are major obstacles.

“I’m not sure any player on either team is going to be able to go to the hole tomorrow night,’’ Davis said. “It’s going to be a challenge. But both teams go against great shot blockers in practice every day, so maybe those guys know a couple of things, a couple of moves for how to score the ball over a great shot blocker.’’

Not likely.

With Davis and Withey out there, easy baskets will be tough to come by. Challenge them at your own risk. But prepare to have your psyche damaged, perhaps irreversibly.

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