Withey looking to build on early success

Kansas fans have long understood that if the team is to reach its potential this season, someone is going to have to step up alongside junior power forward Thomas Robinson. After a strong showing at the Maui Invitational last week, junior center Jeff Withey is looking increasingly ready to fill the role.

It's probably fair to say most Kansas fans were caught a little off guard by the Jeff Withey they witnessed in Maui.

That's not meant as a commentary on Withey's ability. Everyone can see the potential resting within the lanky 7-footer, with his huge wingspan and impressive athleticism. Rather, it's more a reflection of the junior's lack of experience.

After waiting patiently behind the likes of Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and current teammate Thomas Robinson, that this season was going to be Withey's chance to shine was a given long before the ball was tipped during 'Late Night in the Phog.'

Though he averaged just 6.2 minutes per game prior to this season, he was going to need to learn in a hurry if the Jayhawks were going to reach their potential. Everyone expected ups and downs, but stead progress was a must. As talented as Robinson is, he couldn't be expected to shoulder the load on his own.

Through the first four games of the season, there had been glimmers. An exceptional first half in the Nov. 15 loss to Kentucky in New York, during which he blocked a trio of shots and held his own against the absurdly talented frontcourt of the Wildcats, raised some eyebrows among Jayhawk Nation.

The first half of the semi-finals of the EA Sports Maui Invitational did as well. His play versus the UCLA Bruins in the opening 20 minutes earned high praise from Head Coach Bill Self, and in 21 minutes he scored 6 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, blocked a shot and had a pair of assists.

In the Nov. 23 championship tilt with Duke, however – a game that had the feel of a high stakes contest in late March – he finally put it all together.

Withey did more than just shoulder some of the load from Robinson, he handled it himself. He avoided the foul trouble that plagued him previously, and spent 31 minutes on the court. He scored 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting, went a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line, grabbed 10 rebounds (posting his first double-double of his career) and blocked two shots.

He was a force. And if he plays like that all season long, the Kansas Jayhawks are going to be one heck of a dangerous opponent.

"I think Jeff has done great," Self said. "He's gotta keep getting better. He's been motivated to be really good."

Having the support of his coach has been a big confidence boost for Withey, as he has continued to work on maintaining an aggressive attitude on the court.

To him, the way he played versus the Blue Devils is the way he expects himself to play night in and night out.

"I know I'm a pretty good player," Withey said. "I was highly recruited out of high school and stuff, it's just taken me a little bit more time to get out on the floor. I'm kind of playing up to my expectations. I want to do better every game, and I'm just learning still."

Tonight, the Jayhawks return home to begin a four-game home stand after a month of November that saw them travel from one end of the country to the other. They've played a brutal stretch of games, four straight versus Kentucky, Georgetown, UCLA and Duke.

Despite the two losses - to Kentucky and Duke - Self's team has surprised even him to a degree.

"No team in America has played four games in a row like we have," he said. "I don't give them much credit for being tough, because we're not tough yet. But we're probably a little bit more competitive as a group than maybe what I had envisioned."

"It definitely gets us ready," Withey added. "When we play the best teams out there, that's going to make us better. When we play them early it really tells our team what we are and how we should play. We're definitely getting better."

And not just the team, but Withey himself. For Kansas fans, that's very good news indeed.

Tip-off for tonight's contest with Florida Atlantic is set for 7 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse. The game will be broadcast on the Jayhawk Television Network.

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