Shock can do amazing things to the mind. It even can make Jeff Withey look more like a 7-footer than an 82-percent free-throw shooter.
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg’s decision to leave Withey consistently unguarded from 10 feet and beyond triggered the shock in the junior center from San Diego. It seemed as if Withey’s mind told him things that look too good to be true generally are just that. He couldn’t possibly be that wide-open, could he? There had to be a trap door that led to a two-hour stay in a secret dungeon under the floor if he took the shot, right?
So he shot tentatively and missed on Kansas University’s first offensive possession Saturday against Iowa State. Seven minutes later, the ball was in his hands in the lane again, and it came with an invitation to shoot delivered by the Iowa State defense. Nothing but rim with Kansas trailing by nine points.
“We shoot those shots every day in practice, but wide-open like that kind of messes with your head,” Withey said. “I just need to get more confident shooting that. If teams play like that, it should be a field day for me.”
Withey, who blocked a Chris Allen shot on the game’s opening possession, had his fingerprints all over the game in which Kansas recovered from a 12-point deficit to win, 82-73, in Allen Fieldhouse.
Up to the point Kansas caught fire, most of those fingerprints were ones he would have liked to polish away, but next to Tyshawn Taylor, nobody played a bigger part in the comeback. Withey played his best, most passionate half of basketball in a Kansas uniform.
It was Withey’s open lane jumper that he buried with Kansas down 12 points that started the comeback. He finished the day with 13 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocked shots and two assists without a single turnover. In the second half alone, he amassed 11 points, six boards and six blocks.
“At halftime, Tyshawn was in my ear telling me to be more confident when I go up to shoot that. In the second half, I made the first one,” Withey said.
And then he proceeded to make life miserable for Cyclones who twisted their way into the lane and wished they hadn’t. Withey, not the only one assigned to guard him, did a better job of containing Iowa State star Royce White (18 points, 17 rebounds) in the second half than the first.
“He is the tallest guy we have played, so that was different for us,” White said. “That was something we had to think about when we were going into the lane. He is a big-time shot-blocker and a big-time presence on the defensive end, and it showed.”
Withey leads the Big 12 with 3.1 blocked shots per game. He was in the Cyclones’ heads even more than the phantom defense played on him away from the basket was in his head.
“We read the stats and look at all that stuff, and he hadn’t hit a shot outside of the paint this year, so we backed off and made him step up and shoot,” Hoiberg said. “When Thomas Robinson is in the post, we felt like we needed a couple of guys in there. Withey hit a few, and then he got loose inside on a few as well, a couple of rebounds, a couple dump-offs, and he went up and finished. He is a long dude. That is a tough front line to play against.”
Teams that dare Withey to shoot now won’t have shock-value going for them now. As the game progressed, he enjoyed the open space. Anything that makes teams think twice about sending an army of defenders at Robinson at all times can only be a good thing for Kansas, which has a stiffer front-court challenge awaiting Monday when fourth-ranked, undefeated Baylor visits Allen Fieldhouse.