For Jeff Withey, the only thing worse than going scoreless in Kansas’ loss to Missouri earlier this month was what happened a few days later.
Fed up with the junior’s passive play, Jayhawks coach Bill Self became irate when Withey failed to dive for a loose ball during practice. Self screamed at Withey and then made the 7-foot center climb every aisle at Allen Fieldhouse.
The catch: Withey had to bend down and touch each step on his way to the top.
“It took a while,” said Withey, chuckling half-heartedly. “But he was right. I wasn’t playing well. Coach Self is a great motivator. He knows how to fire people up. Ever since then, I feel like I’ve been a different ballplayer.”
The statistics are hard to ignore.
Kansas is 5-0 since losing at Missouri on Feb. 4, and Withey is one of the main reasons. The San Diego native is averaging 16.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.4 blocks during that span and is shooting 76.6 percent (33 of 43) from the foul stripe.
Withey, a junior who averaged just 1.3 and 2.3 points in his first two college seasons, is hopeful his strong play will continue in Saturday’s rematch with Missouri at Allen Fieldhouse. A victory would give the Jayhawks a two-game lead over the Tigers in the Big 12 standings and inch them one step closer to an eighth straight conference title.
I spoke with Withey by phone after Kansas’ victory at Texas A&M Wednesday.
What do you remember the most about the loss to Missouri earlier this month?
Jeff Withey: It wasn’t one of my better games. Looking back, I see so many things I could’ve done personally to help the team out a lot, things I’ll need to do this time. If Kim English is on me again, he’s a smaller guy, so I’ll need to post up stronger and try to take advantage of that match-up so that Thomas [Robinson] can go one-on-one with his man. Defensively, I need to try to make sure they can’t drive into the lane as much, maybe block a lot of shots so they won’t even try to come in there very much. I guess just be more aggressive. The first game I definitely wasn’t as aggressive as I should’ve been.
How has this team responded?
JW: We had the game won. To be up by 10 and lose that game, a lot of things had to go wrong. I think the whole team has tried to build off the loss. Sometimes when you lose a game like that you’ll break down (mentally) to the point where it’s hard to come out of it. We’ve done a good job of putting that in the backs of our minds. Instead of dwelling on it, we’ve focused on the games ahead and played pretty well. But I’m not going to lie. We’ve had Saturday’s game circled on our calendar. We can’t wait to play them again. Practices leading up to the game are going to rough and intense. We’re going to get after it and get ready for this game.
What can you do differently this time?
JW: What I didn’t do at Missouri, I’ve tried to make an effort to correct. When I have a lot of energy, I play a lot better. The last game against MU, I didn’t have much energy. Since then I’ve made an effort to bring a lot more energy and be a lot more aggressive.
How much have the last five games done for your confidence?
JW: It’s snowballed. I’m getting more and more comfortable. It’s easy playing with Tyshawn [Taylor] and Thomas [Robinson]. It takes so much pressure off of me because they’re two of the best players in the nation. Everyone is looking to stop them and Elijah [Johnson] and Travis [Releford], so I get a lot of open shots. Once I hit one of them, I get more confidence and it keeps on going.
How tough was it for you the last two years playing behind Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins? How frustrated did you get about your lack of playing time?
JW: It was definitely hard. But I saw it as an opportunity to get better as a basketball player. When I transferred I knew I’d be behind Cole. Playing against him, I got better every day. Practices are a lot tougher than games. Those practices the last two years were a battle every day. They definitely helped prepare me for what I’m going through now. Coach [Danny] Manning has helped me a ton, too. I may not have the court experience I wish I had, but I’ve played against some great players, and that’s going to help in the long run.
What did those players do to help you the most?
JW: They were scoring on me all the time. It humbled me a little bit and then it made me more aggressive. My shot blocking got a lot better as far as timing. Banging with them every day ... they’re really strong guys, so they got me physically ready to play against anybody.
How has your body changed within the last year?
JW: Over the summer I gained a ton of weight. Unfortunately, it’s gone down a lot while we’ve been playing so much during the season. I gained 20 pounds and was up to 237 at the end of the summer. Now I’m about 225. When I first came to school here I was at 205. Andrea Hudy, our strength coach ... she’s helped so much. There are a lot muscles that you specifically use for basketball. She’s helped me strengthen those. She knows what she’s doing. It’s been a lot of fun.
Even though you didn’t grow up in Kansas or Missouri, you’ve certainly learned a lot about the rivalry between these two schools. What stands out the most?
JW: It’s really important for our state and our university. People are really passionate about it. It goes back to Civil War times. Everyone is talking about it on campus. That’s all they care about, us beating Mizzou. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a fun game, though. I’m glad it means that much to so many people. It definitely makes the game more fun for us, more exciting.
So many teams enter seasons talking about winning national titles, but at Kansas, you don’t look that far ahead. How impressive is it that your team is on the cusp of an eighth straight Big 12 title?
JW: That’s our goal every year, to win the Big 12 title. After that it’s the conference tournament title and after that the national championship. It goes in that order. We know how important this game coming up is. We’ve got a one-game lead right now. If we don’t care of business this weekend, it means nothing. We’re focused right now. We know what’s at stake.