Withey sparks Kansas to victory over SLU

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Win or lose, Kansas’ Bill Self is almost always good for a postgame wisecrack -- even if it comes at the expense of one of his own players.

So it was easy to sense that a punchline was on the way when someone mentioned that KU center Jeff Withey appeared to be “muscling up” in the paint during Tuesday’s 73-59 thumping of Saint Louis at the Sprint Center.

Self smirked.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard the word ‘muscle’ used when speaking about Jeff,” Self said. Everyone in the room snickered.

All joshing aside, the observation was an accurate one.

A 7-foot-1 senior, Withey entered the season with a reputation as one of the country’s top shot-blockers. But after Tuesday, it’s clear he has been working on his offensive game, too.

The soft-spoken Withey tied a career high with 25 points in a victory that clinched the first-place trophy for the 12th-ranked Jayhawks in the CBE Classic. After the game Withey drew praise for the way he fought for position deep in the paint, which made it easier for him to finish plays.

Withey also blocked seven shots for the 4-1 Jayhawks, but the strides he made on offense are what impressed his coach the most.

“We’ve been on Jeff about not scoring the ball,” Self said, “and tonight we played through him. He’s so unselfish and he’s such a good passer. He just needs to get touches.”

Especially if the Jayhawks have ambitions of reaching the Final Four for the second consecutive season.

The early departure of Thomas Robinson to the NBA left a scoring void for Kansas in the paint. Withey averaged an admirable nine points a game playing alongside Robinson last season, but most of his buckets came on put-backs or easy baskets after Robinson had drawn a double-team.

To maintain Kansas' elite status, Self said, Withey would have to develop an arsenal of post moves to complement his defensive game. Self said Withey’s offense would be particularly important during the first few months of the season as freshman forward Perry Ellis adapts to playing at the college level.

Self couldn’t have been more encouraged by what he saw from Withey on Tuesday.

“He worked himself in there pretty [deep] and caught the ball with both feet in the paint a couple of times,” Self said. “Really, he made some good post moves. He caught the ball on the perimeter one time and put it down and up-and-undered a guy.”

Withey also showed that he can score over his left shoulder, the importance of which his coach stressed during the offseason. Fifteen of Withey’s points came during the second half as the Jayhawks staved off Saint Louis’ rally attempt. For the game, Withey connected on 7 of his 12 field goal attempts and was 11-of-14 from the foul stripe.

Withey said KU’s performance from the 3-point line -- the Jayhawks connected on 7 of their 13 attempts -- help open up things for him down low.

“[Saint Louis] was so worried about our guards because they were shooting 3s and knocking down shots,” Withey said. “It made it easy for me in the second half to go one-on-one.

“They were throwing the ball [to me] perfect. All I had to do was catch it and go up.”

A 21-6 scoring run early in the first half gave the Jayhawks a 28-10 lead. The Billikens never threatened again.

“We came out flat,” SLU forward Cody Ellis said. “Against a good team like Kansas, you can’t do that. They’re going to step on your throat.”

Kansas City native Travis Releford, who played high-school ball just a few miles down the road from the Sprint Center, was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

Releford scored 21 of his 23 points in the decisive first half -- mainly because Saint Louis backed off of him and dared him to shoot. Releford had missed all 11 of his 3-point attempts before the CBE Classic. He went 4-of-7 from beyond the arc Tuesday.

“Of course,” said Releford, when asked if he was offended by the cushion the Billikens gave him on the perimeter. “Any player who is defended that way should feel disrespected. They played off of me, and my coaches and teammates told me to continue to shoot it.”

Impressed as he was with Releford, it was obvious after the game that Saint Louis coach Jim Crews thought the MVP trophy should’ve gone to Withey.

“We were trying to get help from different positions, but they’ve got good players all over the place,” said Crews, whose team fell to 2-2. “When you plug [one] hole, another one opens up.”

Withey’s intimidating presence in the paint was one of the main reasons SLU shot just 34.6 percent from the field. The Billikens missed 11 of their first 13 attempts from 2-point range.

Forward Dwayne Evans entered the game averaging a team-high 17 points, but he managed just five field-goal attempts against Kansas -- and he wasn’t even the player Withey was guarding.

“Some shot-blockers are good on the ball, some are better off the ball,” Crews said. “[Withey] seems to have a knack for doing both and staying out of foul trouble. I certainly salute him on that.”