LAWRENCE, Kan. — Jeff Withey knew he was in trouble when he failed to track down a rebound and Kansas coach Bill Self immediately brought practice to a screeching halt.
Withey was coming off a miserable performance at Missouri, held scoreless in a game against the fourth-ranked Jayhawks’ stiffest challenger for Big 12 supremacy, and Self was so annoyed by the 7-footer’s lack of hustle that he told him to start running the stairs in Allen Fieldhouse.
There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 steps inside the historic arena.
Withey touched just about every one of them.
“He was disgusted, so he told me to touch all the stairs. I couldn’t blame him,” Withey said. “I think he was trying to light a fire under me.”
It’s been ablaze ever since.
Withey poured in a career-best 25 points in a victory at No. 9 Baylor, and followed it up with 18 points and a career-high 20 rebounds against Oklahoma State. His performance against rival Kansas State on Monday night — 18 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocked shots — was pivotal as the Jayhawks avoided a second-half collapse in a 59-53 victory.
Not bad for a guy who could barely get on the court last season.
“For someone who kind of came out of left field, I don’t remember anyone as dominant,” said Self, who has tutored his share of NBA big men during his coaching career.
“How do you win without him?” Self asked.
It’s a good question.
The Jayhawks (21-5, 11-2 Big 12) struggled early in the season against teams with length, such as top-ranked Kentucky and No. 5 Duke. But with Withey providing a complement for player of the year candidate Thomas Robinson in the paint, Kansas is playing its best ball in quite some time.
Since an upset loss to Davidson in December, its lone losses have come on the road against Iowa State and Missouri — the latter a turning point for Withey’s season.
Perhaps his entire career.
“He’s awesome. As a coach, I root for guys to get better,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “As a fan of the game, as a guy who tries to teach kids, when you see a kid play with the confidence that young man is playing right now — Bill tried to play him, put him in there and had to get him out. Now he’s dominating games.”
Withey didn’t need to have much of a presence as a sophomore last season, when the Morris twins patrolled the interior and a bunch of veterans were holding the reins during a 35-3 season.
Markieff and Marcus both headed off to the NBA early, though. So did Josh Selby, and much of the leadership from that team graduated. Even the imposing Robinson was a role player last season, and he’s taken on an expanded role as Kansas pursues its eighth straight Big 12 title.
Self knew that he’d need someone else to step up, especially after two high-profile recruits were deemed partial academic qualifiers. He never expected Withey to become that guy.
“I don’t think there’s a big guy in the country who plays like he does,” Martin said.
There may be some truth to that, too.
The back-to-the-basket post player is a dying breed in college basketball. Teams are relying on athletic big men who can run the floor, get to the basket and extend defenses to the perimeter, rather than 7-footers who act as a pivot on offense, post up on the block and use an assortment of George Mikan-like baby hooks to get the ball in the basket.
“I’ve been telling Jeff for a while, ‘When you get the ball in the post, unless they come trap you, just go one-on-one,’” Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. “He’s been a really good shooter. It’s hard to stop him. He’s 7 foot. He can shoot right over guys.”
Withey averaged 2.3 points and 1.8 rebounds last season. He’s averaging 9.5 points and 6.5 rebounds this season, but 20.3 points and 12 boards over the past three games.
It’s not like opposing defenses can simply foul him, either. Withey is shooting better than 85 percent from the free-throw line, fourth-best in the Big 12, and has been Self’s choice when Kansas is awarded foul shots after a technical is whistled on opposing teams.
“He’s got great timing. He’s very skilled. He’s not the most mobile guy, but I think he understands that and he makes up for it,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said. “He has a very good understanding of what makes him good player, and what his strengths and weaknesses are.”
Withey said it seems like games have been played in “slow motion” the past couple weeks, like he’s the only on the floor who has the ability to move at normal speed.
If that doesn’t change, the Jayhawks may be primed for another March run.
“I’d say being aggressive is a lot of it,” Withey said. “At Missouri, I didn’t score at all. I wasn’t a factor. Coach was really angry about that. He feels like I just let them punk me. The last couple practices have been tough. He’s been getting on me, getting me to be more physical in practice. He’s a good motivator, and my teammates are, too.”