WVU basketball: Withey a tall task for Mountaineers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The most troubling reality for West Virginia entering tonight's game against Kansas is that while it has had big problems this season, the Mountaineers have not encountered one as large as they will in the 9 p.m. game to televised on ESPN.
He is 7-foot senior center Jeff Withey, one of the nation's most formidable low-post presences and the main reason the eight-time defending Big 12 regular-season champion Jayhawks have the NCAA's best field-goal percentage defense.
"He's a long, tall guy and he changes shots," WVU's Deniz Kilicli said. "That's what he does best, I think. He blocks shots, but he can move and cover different areas and just change everyone's shots."
The NCAA doesn't track changed shots, but Withey is No. 2 in blocked shots per game, behind only St. John's freshman Chris Obepka. Despite a reputation Withey earned last season, he has increased his average from 3.6 per game as a junior to 4.3 this season.
He has blocked 82 shots for Kansas (18-1, 6-0 Big 12), which will likely be ranked No. 2 when the new polls come out today. WVU (9-10, 2-4) has blocked 74 shots.
"With me, long arms definitely helps and I think I can jump pretty high," said Withey, a preseason first-team all-Big 12 pick. "But the sense of timing is big, for sure. There are a lot of tall guys out there who can't block shots, a lot of guys with long arms and big hands, but a lot of it has to do with timing. It's something you can't really learn. You just kind of have it."
Kansas allows opponents to shoot just 34.9 percent per game, a red flag for a WVU team that's shooting only 39.5 percent, which ranks No. 314 out of 345 teams.
The Mountaineers have to get most of their points near the basket because they've been so erratic on the perimeter, where they rank No. 317 and shoot 29.2 percent from 3-point range.
"If everything starts getting hard for them and for us and people are not making shots and it's getting physical, that's our strength," Kilicli said. "That's how we work."
That's how Withey works, too. He's shooting 54.8 percent from the floor, thanks to a lot of dunks and layups, and adds 8.4 rebounds per game. He has six double-doubles and one triple double, with 16 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocks in November against San Jose State.
He has also bumped his scoring average to 13 points per game, two baskets better than where it was last season.
"He's a pretty decent scorer now," Kilicli said.
The Jayhawks average 74.6 points per game, which ranks No. 40, but they weren't sure that would be the case. Thomas Robinson went to the NBA early after averaging 17.7 points per game and leading Kansas to the national championship game last season. Also, nobody could have known freshman Ben McLemore would be No. 2 in the Big 12 in scoring (16.2 points per game) and lead the conference in field-goal, free-throw and 3-point percentages this season.
Withey saw an opening and made the most of his offseason, attending clinics run by LeBron James and Amar'e Stoudemire and working on shots near and far from the basket.
"In high school, I averaged about 22 points per game from my sophomore year to my senior year, so it's only something new at the college level because I hadn't had the opportunity to do it before," he said. "But my junior and senior years, I was the only one going to college on a scholarship, so whenever we won a game, I had to score 28 or 30 points."
He hasn't needed those sorts of heroics this season.
Withey has one 20-point game and hasn't made more than seven shots in a game.
"Jeff naturally isn't one of those guys that looks to score or has it come easy for him," Coach Bill Self said. "That's not the case. Last year he averaged nine a game in large part because he played next to Thomas. Thomas would get doubled or whatever and Jeff would benefit from that. This year defenses will be designed to stop Jeff."
That has worked for the Jayhawks. McLemore, Withey and Travis Releford (12.7 points per game) average double figures. All five starters average at least 7.5 points per game.
In addition to boosts in blocks and scoring, Withey is also grabbing two more rebounds a game than he did last season, when Withey was the Big 12 defensive player of the year and arguably its most improved.
Only once this season has Kansas been outscored in the minutes Withey has been on the floor, and that was the team's only loss, a three-point defeat against Michigan State in the second game of the season. He rarely ever is in foul trouble, either, and hasn't had more than three fouls in a game.
"It's definitely a different feeling from last year when nobody knew what to expect from me," he said. "I feel like I kind of snuck up on everyone. This year, I'm trying to take the momentum I had last year and at the end of the season and build off it. You just have to work harder and that's all I've been doing, hoping to get better throughout the season and trying not to pay attention to the hype or anything like that."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.