Jeff Withey, Kansas, and how being big will never go out of style

Few things are more certain in life that the Kansas basketball program.  Players come and go, but the Jayhawks are always one of the best teams in the country.  Last season, Bill Self’s team managed well through a “down year” and ended up making the NCAA title game.  This season, even after losing their two top scorers from a year ago, the Jayhawks only have a single loss and are an easy favorite to win the Big 12 and take a high tournament seed in March.

The Kansas offense is good.  The Kansas defense is more than just good.  The Kansas defense does terrible things to opponents.  On Monday, the Jayhawk D locked the Baylor Bears in the trunk, put the keys in the ignition, tied a brick to the accelerator, and ran the car off a cliff.  Baylor shot 23 percent from the field, and the high scoring Bears only managed 0.65 points per possession.  It was an ugly massacre.

Kansas’ dominance starts at the rim.  Monday in Lawrence the Bears only made 26 percent of their field goals at the rim.  Baylor normally makes 69 percent of their shots in close, which is a good conversion rate.  But that didn’t happen against the Jayhawks, as Bill Self’s team blocked 8 of the 19 Baylor attempts at the cup.  Heavy protection of the rim is nothing new for the Jayhawks, who on the season have blocked 28 percent of opponent attempts near the basket.  This is a shot blocking rate that leads Division I by a substantial amount.  (The second place team in this category is Syracuse.  The Orange have blocked 22 percent of opponents’ shots from in close.)  Because of this, the Kansas defense has only allowed opponents to make 47 percent of their dunks and layups, a percentage that ranks second only to Akron, a team blessed with rim defender Zeke Marshall.

While a number of Jayhawks joined the block party against Baylor, the key to the Kansas defense is Jeff Withey.  Last year and this year, no player has had a more distorting effect on opposing offenses.  A season ago, the seven footer led the nation in shot block percentage, and this season he is ranked third.  Withey’s presence changes the calculus for opposing teams.  Normally, teams are best served to shoot near the basket as often as possible, as these shots generally produce points more efficiently than any other type.  But against Kansas, that isn’t necessarily the case.  

With Kansas opponents only making 47 percent of their shots at the rim, it is a wonder why they even bother to attack it.  Opponents essentially have the same effective field goal percentage from three point range as they have at the rim, and shooting threes is much less of a hassle than fooling around with Mr. Withey.  Iowa State showed this when they nearly beat Kansas last week, attempting over half of their shots from beyond the arc.  It was a strategy that worked well — the Cyclones scored 1.1 points per possession against the Kansas D, the best anyone has managed all year — and Iowa State could have pulled off the upset had Ben McLemore not realized that our silly laws of physics do not apply to him.

Next season, people will probably wonder again about the Jayhawks, and if they can keep things going after Withey is gone.  But the thing to remember is this — with Kansas it always seems that another Jeff Withey is waiting in the wings(*).  There are no down years in Lawrence.

(* And his name might be Jamari Traylor.)

Being big never goes out of style in basketball; it is just a game that seems to favor the very tall.  We periodically forget this for some reason, and fall in love with the team with a great lead guard.  But by the first weekend in April, it always seems that the teams with scary guys who are incomprehensibly large are the ones still playing.