Omaha, Neb. The road to the Final Four starts in the same building for Kansas as it did four years ago, when the Jayhawks won the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history.
A potential marquee matchup with North Carolina, just as four years ago, lurks in the distance, San Antonio in the national semifinals last time, St. Louis this time for the right to advance to New Orleans.
But the similarities between this team and the school’s most recent national-championship squad are few.
That team’s most valuable player? Compelling cases could be made for Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur and Sherron Collins.
This year’s bunch? Only Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor are in the discussion. For KU to build as shocking a postseason as a regular season that ended with a 16-2 record and an eighth consecutive Big 12 title, a third player needs to force his way into the conversation.
And it’s not as if 7-foot junior center Jeff Withey didn’t perform well enough to generate whispers to that effect in spurts. Twice during the regular season, Withey fell one blocked shot shy of a triple-double.
After totaling 13 points, 13 rebounds and nine blocked shots in an 88-80 victory against Long Beach State on Dec. 6 at home, Withey said, “I didn’t realize I was that close until toward the end of the game. I guess I’ll just have to try for another one. I definitely wanted it, but it’s not something that’s always on my mind.”
Coming that close was a big deal then.
His next near miss came Feb. 13, when in the hostile territory of Bramlage Coliseum, the slender Withey bullied Kansas State with 18 points, 11 boards and nine blocked shots in a 59-53 victory.
“I’m gonna get it,” Withey said, “sooner or later.”
Just 10 weeks after the big deal of a near miss, it was no big deal. His confidence had soared. He played with the angry eyes of a wounded animal.
Withey posted six double-doubles, including an 18-point, 20-rebound domination of Oklahoma State. He scored 25 points in the victory against Baylor in Waco.
Kansas coach Bill Self likened Detroit Mercy’s athleticism to that of Baylor’s. For a 7-footer, Withey’s a terrific athlete. It’s a game that should suit his style, inflate his confidence to where it was between the two Missouri games in which he combined for two points.
With Withey at his best, throwing down dunks, making short banks instead of missing them, tossing in hook shots with either hand, staying out of foul trouble so that he can patrol the paint and stir panic, the picture of Kansas doing something special comes into focus.
Without that Withey on the court for a KU team short on quality reserves and outside shooters, it gets too blurry to see New Orleans.