Consider this: When the 7’ center from California arrived in Lawrence, Kansas in the fall of 2009, he was the 6th big man off the bench for the Jayhawks. I’ll say that again: Not the 6th man, the 6th big man. There were, count’em, five big men ahead of Withey in the lineup: Cole Aldrich, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, and Mario Little. I remember watching Withey at Late Night in the Phog at the beginning of that season. By all accounts, he was a skinny, gangly kid, whose only purpose on a team of future NBA draft picks was to give the starters a rest and take some of Aldrich’s fouls. Within two seasons, he would go from an uncoordinated liability to the centerpiece of a Final Four team.
How dramatic is Withey’s transformation? Just look at the numbers. His freshman and sophomore years, he played between 3 and 6 minutes a game, averaging 1.3 and 2.3 points per game each year, respectively. Compare that to his junior season, when his averages jumped to 24 minutes, 9 points, and 3.6 blocks per game. He helped carry Kansas to the national title game, while blocking more shots than anyone in the NCAA Tournament, including Final Four MVP and #1 NBA Draft pick Anthony Davis. Not too shabby for a guy who strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy said, “Had never worked hard a day in his life,” when he came to KU.
Really, the most stunning numbers are his blocks. Try to contemplate this: If you took away every shot Jeff Withey blocked his freshman and sophomore year, he would still be the all-time Big XII shot block leader. His 267 blocks in just his junior and seniors seasons (including 3 unofficially on Thursday) would still be good enough for first place on the list, with Chris Mihm of Texas in second with 264 blocks. Add on the 25 blocks from his first two seasons, along with Big XII Tournament games and a potential run in this year’s NCAA Tournament, Withey’s block numbers may not be approached for quite some time.
It’s fitting that I saw Jeff Withey play, not only his first practice in Allen Fieldhouse in 2009, but his very last game in the same building last week. Remembering back, it’s difficult to believe I was looking at the same kid. On that day in 2009 he was ignorantly soft, and I watched him complain to a ref about a no-call….at Late Night in the Phog. Last week, I watched thousands of fans bow down to the same person with their patented “W” hand gesture. Jeff Withey’s transformation is like no one else in college basketball today, and his candidacy for defensive player of the year is well deserved. And to top it off, he’ll finish as the most accurate three point shooter in Kansas basketball history. Most improved, indeed.