In sports, when something is as important to its fan base as the Kansas University basketball team is to its followers, conclusions tend to be reached quickly.
The memory of Jeff Withey missing a few wide-open 15-footers in the first half of the Jan. 14 game against Iowa State in Allen Fieldhouse has rooted so deeply and replayed so many times in some brains that the 7-foot center is struggling with his jump shot.
“I don’t know that I buy that he’s struggling,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “He’s probably taken six and made two.”
Anywhere else in the research university on the hill, that wouldn’t qualify as sufficient data. Shooting that shot more often is a more meaningful issue than the accuracy rate on those rare occasions he has pulled the trigger.
“Cole (Aldrich) got really good at that shot, and he will, too, because he’s a terrific free-throw shooter,” Self said of Withey. “We’ve got to get him to where he’s looking to score from there. Our offense will flow better if they have to guard us at all five spots.”
This season is all about improvement for Withey, a junior from San Diego who leads the Big 12 in blocked shots with 3.3 per game. He’s shooting .523 overall and .847 from the line.
With his new haircut, Withey looks like an altar boy. He’s always played like an Alter Boy, more now than ever.
“I think he keys our success as much as anybody,” Self said. “He makes it awful hard to score on us in tight when he’s blocking and altering like he is right now.”
When Kansas visits Ames on Saturday to play Iowa State in Hilton Coliseum for a 1 p.m. tipoff, Withey will face challenges at both ends. During the first game, Withey spent a portion of the game guarding point power forward Royce White, who had 18 points and 17 rebounds.
Because Cyclones coach Fred Hoiberg surrounded Thomas Robinson with multiple defenders even more than most coaches do, Withey found himself standing alone with the ball in his hands and shot jumpers by default instead of with confidence.
“I think they are going to do the same thing, focus on T-Rob, and I’ve been working on that jump shot,” Withey said. “I missed three or four of them the last game, but I think they’re going to play the same way they did, and we’re going to have to hit shots. No matter what, teams usually focus on Thomas. So I’ve been lucky this year to get a lot of opportunities on the offensive end.”
It’s easy to see Withey having a big day Saturday offensively, not as easy to see it happening at the other end if he’s on White as often as he was in the first match-up.
“He’s a great player,” Withey said. “It’s going to be tough guarding him. He’s quick. He can handle the ball. I think I know what to expect this time. It’s hard to believe that somebody that tall and that strong can be kind of like a point guard, and the first time it kind of shocked me. Now I know what’s going to happen. ... I’ve been guarding more on the perimeter (in practice).”
Maybe the way to go is to put Elijah Johnson or Travis Releford on White for stretches and leave Withey and Robinson inside to win the battle of the boards. Or Justin Wesley. White only shoots .512 from the line.