ARLINGTON, Texas — At this point in the season, an inevitable fact comes with facing the Kansas men’s basketball team: You’re going to face Jeff Withey.
At 7 feet tall, it’s hard to miss the Jayhawk center, who has built his identity this season as a low-post presence and as one of the nation’s top shot-blockers.
As a result, No. 4 Michigan prepares for inside play to be a factor when it faces the No. 1-seeded Jayhawks in an NCAA tournament South region game at 7:37 p.m. today at Cowboys Stadium — namely how Withey could and likely will affect the pace of the Sweet 16 game.
“I can definitely have a big impact,” the center said. “Our whole defense of this game will be not letting them in the paint. I’ll definitely be in there.”
The Wolverines (28-7) already have a plan of action against the big man.
“Try to get as deep in the paint as possible,” said Michigan point guard Trey Burke, who averaged 12 points and seven assists in his first two NCAA tournament games in Auburn Hills, Mich. “When we get down there, it’s just making wise choices.
“I know he’s one of the best shot blockers, if not the best, in the country. My job is just to try to hit the layup when I can and hit the big man when I can. It’s all off of reads from Jeff Withey, really.”
Michigan’s best strategy against Kansas (31-5) is more psychological instead of tactical: Respond, instead of just reacting.
“There’s going to be times when we get into the paint, and when we get into the paint, you have a 7-footer there,” said Burke, who on Thursday was one of five players named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-American first team. “You have to make the right decision or you’ll have a bad shot or a blocked shot.”
Case in point: Withey is second in the nation in blocked shots with 3.92 a game (141 in 36 games), behind St. John’s center Chris Obekpa (133 blocks in 33 games, 4.3 blocks per game). Kansas is second in the nation with 239 blocked shots (6.6 per game), behind St. John’s (241 blocked shots in 33 games; 7.3 per game).
Withey also holds Kansas’ school record for blocked shots (306) and needs seven more to tie Tim Duncan’s NCAA tournament record of 50.
Michigan coach John Beilein has some familiarity with big men who have a penchant for blocking shots. When he coached at West Virginia from 2002-2007, his team regularly faced Connecticut centers Emeka Okafor, Josh Boone, Hasheem Thabeet, and Hilton Armstrong, who each led the Big East in shot blocking in four of Beilein’s five seasons.
“What is deflating is when you run a beautiful play, it couldn’t be run better, and he somehow blocks the shot and they’re going the other way,” Beilein said.
Withey also chips in offensively, averaging 13.7 points for the Jayhawks.
“Defensively, I feel really comfortable,” Withey said. “But if they’re going to play small, then I’ve got to get more aggressive and attack that.
“This whole year, I’ve been working on my offensive game and just being more comfortable scoring.”
Withey’s output has a ripple effect on the Jayhawks.
“When Jeff starts playing good, we all start playing good,” Kansas forward Kevin Young said. “We all feed off Jeff. If we can get him the ball as much as we can, it makes everybody else’s jobs a lot easier.”
Michigan’s likely answer in the paint is Mitch McGary, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound freshman forward who had a breakout performance last weekend with 21 points and 14 rebounds in a 78-53 win against No. 5 seed Virginia Commonwealth.
“He’s the type of guy that’s going to try to get loose balls, and he’s going to try to do anything it takes to help out the team,”said Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe, a prep school teammate of McGary’s at Brewster (N.H.) Academy. “We have to make sure that we can’t let him get extra rebounds and loose balls, and we have to make sure that we’re the first one on the floor.”
Inside play, McGary said, will be the key, whether it’s using shot fakes to create scoring chances or getting Kansas’ inside players in some sort of foul trouble.
“We have to get out early,” McGary said, “and hopefully make a statement that we’re able to score low post and have a low-post presence, and defensively keep [Withey] away from the basket and try to make other people score.”
McGary said it best: Withey definitely won’t go unnoticed.
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: email@example.com, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.