Jeff Withey's 7'0 frame rises off James Naismith Court inside Allen Fieldhouse as he plants with both of his massive feet and takes off. He rises, perfectly vertical with his immense arms stretched over his head, with his extensive hands just over the ball as young Baylor 7-footer, Isiah Austin, reaches the peak of his shot.
Withey does all of this in one simple-looking glide from the free throw line and rise to the rim before bouncing the ball off the backboard for Kansas guard Travis Releford to grab, rejecting the freshman's shot with ease in the No. 4 ranked Jayhawks' defeat of the Baylor Bears, 61-44.
Austin is a promising young player with incredibly long limbs and a nice outside shot, but on this night, Withey, the fifth-year senior, teaches Austin a lesson about going strong to the basket in the Big 12.
Through 15 wins and one loss this season for Kansas, Jeff Withey has averaged 4.7 blocked shots per game. That's second in the NCAA.
"You compare him to Anthony Davis and their not far off, and their better in a lot of areas." Scott Drew, coach of the Baylor Bears said after his team was held to 44 points, said. "He (Withey) doesn't get enough credit."
Last season, Withey was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year after leading the league in blocked shots.
Withey learned this leaping ability long ago, almost in a different lifetime you could say. Before high school, Withey thought about giving up basketball. Actually, he did for awhile.
“There was a time I gave up basketball and started playing volleyball,” Withey said to The Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd.
It became his first love. The hoop had been dumped. Instead, Jeff spent hours smashing volleyballs over a net into the California sand. He was a 14-year-old kid in San Diego, it made sense. Basketball was mostly played indoors.
Withey's brother was a fireman that was known to surf the waves of the Pacific rolling in on the coast of California. His sister was a volleyball player at Oral Roberts. There was no reason to play basketball until Withey grew seven inches going into his freshman year of high school and decided to dedicate himself to the sport.
Last season, Withey was the key component in the Jayhawks' run to the National Championship Game as he set all kinds of tournament and Final Four records for blocking shots.
The most impressive aspect of Withey's knack for blocking shots is his simultaneous ability to avoid fouling. For every foul that Withey has committed this season, he has 3.75 blocks to show for it.
“The timing of blocking shots,” Withey said in The Star. “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.”
Timing is Withey's best asset. It comes from patience, along with quickness for his size.
There has been a long journey to Lawrence, Kansas for Withey. There was a commitment to Rick Pitino and Louisville that Withey backed out of, eventually deciding to be closer to home at Arizona. Withey eventually transferred to Kansas just before Christmas his freshman year.
In his four years in Kansas, Withey's game has developed into something more than even the most optimistic outlook would have suggested. He has stepped up his offensive play and become the Jayhawks' second-leading scorer at 13.1 points per game.
“This year, defenses will be designed to stop Jeff.” KU coach Bill Self said at Big 12 media day before the season. “So, him getting 12 (points) a game will show great improvement.”
Withey averaged nine points per game last year, with Thomas Robinson, who would be selected fifth overall in the NBA draft on the other block playing power forward.
For most of the season Withey's points per game average has grown to its current status.
Withey worked hard for the past four years. Waiting his turn, competing in practice and for playing time with Cole Aldrich, the Morris twins, and Robinson. After his time playing against that level of talent, the skills were bound to continue growing.
When Withey scores, it is mostly because of the position he establishes in the post. Especially against a skinny big-man like Isaiah Austin, who is about 20 pounds lighter than Withey, he is able to seal the freshman out and catch the ball in the paint. Withey was once a skinny player himself before changing his diet and putting on more muscle for this season with the Kansas strength Coach Andrea Hudy.
Coach Self described Withey's progression on offense before the season, saying that he had been working on his shooting touch, in and outside the paint.
“He’s a good face-up jump shooter,” Self said. “He can definitely make the 15-to-17-foot jump shot. He can pick and pop. He can score over his left shoulder. But the big thing is, he’s got to get where he can score over his right shoulder. We’ve been working hard on him developing a left-hand jump hook, or a go-to over his right shoulder. That’s something we tell him to do every day, we run him if he doesn’t.”
Withey has worked his way into the first round of the NBA draft by some projections. As he shows scouts his offensive development, that likelihood will continue to grow.
For Kansas, this season is becoming one that once again looks like it has a strong possibility of ending in Atlanta, in another trip to the Final Four. Withey would have to be a big part of that.
Perhaps, Kansas relies a bit too heavily on the 235-pound Withey at times.
“It is pretty remarkable to have a guy back there who can cover up for mistakes, because we’re making too many,” Self said. “We’re putting too much pressure on him, to be honest.”
Withey's teammates have talked about what it's like to play perimeter defense through out the season. It can be a gift and a curse, knowing that the Withey Block Party is waiting in the paint.
“We appreciate it," guard Travis Releford said after a game against St Louis University in Kansas City, Mo. When asked if Withey was respected enough, Releford responded, “Us players, and coaches we see and know what Jeff does for the team. He helps out a lot. He takes a lot of pressure off guards defending because we know if we get beat, then we got Jeff back there to block the shot. So, we definitely appreciate that.”
When Kansas has been at its best this season, it is because the guards are able and willing to play overly aggressive and reach for steals knowing who has their back.
“I think the more aggressive person usually wins,” Withey said after that same game in Kansas City.
There have been a many occasions like Self is talking about, though, when he says they are putting too much pressure on Withey. Elijah Johnson explained why that is after a close win in Lawrence, Kan. against San Jose St.
“We get caught standing around watching Jeff, like a fan or something." Johnson said. "That’s when we need to snap back into it, because he can’t do it all on his own. But Jeff saved us a lot of times. There was a lot of times I caught myself looking at him like I wasn’t a part of the game.”
“It’s a big help for us that we know, even if our man beats us off the dribble, he’s only completed half of the task.”
For Withey it's just like a day on the beach, smashing volleyballs into the sand on the beaches of California. Against Baylor on Monday, the Jayhawks were more active, and did not rely as much on the big man, who blocked just three shots.
“We had a lot of guys block shots other than Jeff,” Self said. “That was the most active we’ve been with our hands as far racking and stealing the ball.”
Withey scored just eight points, but displayed some of his new post moves he's developed this season, which consist mostly of spins and turnaround hook shots. The hook over his right shoulder with his left hand may still need some work, but of course Self will assure that is done.
Still, as Withey rises high into the air, with his hands slightly bent forward over a trapped shooter, it is easy to see where his roots are. He looks almost like a middle blocker in volleyball perfectly blocking a kill attempt while avoiding a touch of the net and hearing the sound of the referee's whistle.
It's all about timing and position for Jeff Withey, and at the moment, on James Naismith Court, in Allen Fieldhouse, he's in the perfect place.