Paying Homage

It's time to honor the seniors and this quartet deserves all the love 16,300 will heap on them Monday night in Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

It's time to honor the seniors and this quartet deserves all the love 16,300 will heap on them Monday night in Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

It will be an emotional night as Travis Releford, Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson, and Kevin Young run out of the tunnel for the last time in one of basketball's most sacred venues.

They should feel proud. They've represented all that this program is about. It's not just winning conference titles and over 80 percent of their games in crimson and blue. They all stayed the course and remained true to KU.

"We've got four guys who have won an awful lot of games and have given themselves to this place and represented this place in a first class way," said Self.

Now they will get the chance to standup and take that microphone and thank everyone who has been a part of their journeys at KU.

For Jeff Withey it hasn't exactly been the straightest path to success. Withey ended up at KU after pledging his allegiance to Louisville originally only to eventually de-commit. He chose Arizona but when head coach Lute Olson stepped down, Withey was on the move again.

"The reason we got him is because when Coach Olson stepped down and retired in that fall, he didn't want to play. He didn't want to stay," said Self. "He called us and wanted to come to Kansas."

The 7-foot Withey redshirted his freshman year and then ended up playing halfway thru his second year but was fifth behind Cole Aldrich, the Twins (Markieff and Marcus), and Thomas Robinson in the pecking order. Withey was hardly a factor.

So from "hardly a factor" to a Wooden Award candidate Withey's improvement has been amazing to watch.

Blessed with long arms and a slender frame the former volleyball player did his work in the weight room with Andre Hudy calling his name every single day to help him put on the pounds. That work coupled with Head Coach Bill Self begging for Withey to be aggressive has transformed into one of the nation's best big men.

The story will go down in Kansas lore but once when Withey - who went scoreless in a game against Mizzou last season - failed to go after a ball during practice, Self had his big man touch all 900 steps in Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

"He was disgusted, so he told me to touch all the stairs. I couldn't blame him," said Withey recalling the task. "I think he was trying to light a fire under me."

It was a fire that turned into a blazing inferno in his next game at Baylor when he put up 25 points and the world started to really get a glimpse of Withey's value to this team. He's become way more than a shot blocker, though he is KU's all-time leader in the stat and is currently third in the nation in blocks per game at 4.0.

"He makes it hard for everybody to score inside. He's the best shot-blocker in the country," West Virginia's Bob Huggins told reporters after watching Withey put up 9 blocks against his team in a 91-65 loss Saturday.

Watching Withey's maturation on the court, his passion for the game, and his love of KU blossom over the years has been a treat to see.

Jeff's consistency was an issue early on. Not any more. He's got 12 double-doubles on the season including 5 in his last 6 games. He's without a doubt one of the nation's best and a big reason this team is playing for another league title.

Jeff will be able to hold that framed jersey and his chin high knowing he has made a mark on this program.

"We're excited for Monday night," Withey admitted after Saturday's win against West Virginia. "It's going to be an emotional game and one that we will remember for a long time."

Elijah Johnson is a unique player with a one-of-a-kind personality. He's made crucial jumpers and finished above the rim in style during his career here. No, the 6-4 Johnson's senior season hasn't been all smooth sailing but he has been the unquestioned leader since the end of last season. That has never changed.

Guys love him and love playing with him.

Saturday Ben McLemore put up 36 points and spent the better part of his post game press conference talking about what a great teammate Elijah is and how he inspires him and finds him when he's open. Think these guys don't love EJ? Ask Self about the response on the locker room after Monday night's 108-96 overtime win at Iowa State.

"I knew our guys liked Elijah, but I didn't realize how much they respected him and liked him until after the game," said Self referring to the locker room scene after Johnson busted out with 39 points vs. the Cyclones. "I have never seen a group of guys more happy than they were for Elijah."

His minutes and his value have increased every season in a KU uniform. He's another player that went through frustrating times but hung in there and stayed the course an when his playing time wasn't what he wanted he didn't bolt Lawrence. He remained a Jayhawk and found a way to make himself invaluable to this program.

Without the Las Vegas, Nevada native KU wouldn't have made the run it did in the NCAA tournament a season ago. No one will forget that or the 39-point performance.

After a rough stretch, Johnson appears to have his confidence back and his explosive ability. He's already put up some clutch performances and somehow I don't think #15 is quite done yet. He changes the complexion of this team when he plays at this level and I fully believe he's the capable leader this team needs down the stretch.

Travis Releford was another ballyhooed high school star who's success at KU didn't come quickly. After being a two-time high school All-American Releford played just 7 minutes a game his freshman season. Minutes were hard to come by on a talented Kansas roster.

The Kansas City native could've bolted too. He could've tried to find greener pastures and more playing time but to Releford being at KU meant something. He redshirted his sophomore season and again, like Withey and Johnson, waited his turn.

"Yes, definitely," Releford answered when asked if the redshirt year helped him. "It helped confidence-wise, skill-wise, and just learning the way Coach Self wanted me to play."

Self convinces these kids to stay the course and they return older, wiser, and even more ready. And his kids buy in 100 percent.

At first lauded for his defense, Releford has become so much more. He's still one of the best lockdown defenders there are but he is solid on the glass, a wonderful finisher in transition, and he has transformed himself into an accurate shooter. Releford's 59.0 percent shooting leads the conference, which is outstanding for a 6-6 guard.

As good and his shooting has been his intangibles are still invaluable to this team. No better way to describe Travis than he just does what he has to for the team to win. He's not flashy but at the end of the game he's the one you'll remember made the biggest play. Though I'll remember Elijah's 39 points vs. Iowa State as a signature moment this year, I will always remember Travis diving to keep a loose ball inbounds as time ran out in Stillwater in a critical win at Oklahoma State this season. That's Travis. Can never measure how much he means to this team by simply looking at numbers.

"Travis is never going to be a 20 point per game scorer," Self said. "But he can get 28 in any game. He's proven that. He's a defender, loose ball guy, an energy guy that scores basically out of making simple plays. He's done a really good job of that."

What has Kevin Young done in his two years since transferring from Loyola-Marymount? Well, what hasn't he done?

He's bouncy, athletic and seems to have a nose for the ball. Again, he can make a ton of plays that don't show up on the stat sheet. He is the team's second-leading rebounder and his ability on the glass is one of the main reason he's had that starting spot locked up for most of this season.

Young is what you would call a glue guy and all championship teams have them. The other team is likely game planning for the likes of Withey and Ben McLemore but Young could be the one in the end you pay for forgetting about.

The 6-8 Young hasn't been here as long as the others but KU fans are glad to have had his hard-working and energetic performances the last two seasons. Young has scored over 1,000 points between Loyola Marymount and KU and will remain important as KU tries to make another big run in March.

These guys deserve a standing ovation not just for their contributions on the court but also for the way they have represented this basketball program and Kansas.

Senior night will be special for all involved.


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