Good 'n Plenty: Laid-back Withey's spark gives Jayhawks added bite

by | College Basketball Insider
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Withey's now a threat when he catches the ball, averaging 20.3 points his past three games. (US Presswire)  
Withey's now a threat when he catches the ball, averaging 20.3 points his past three games. (US Presswire)  

Jeff Withey is your typical laid-back California kid.

"I spent a lot of time on the beach growing up," Kansas' emerging big man said. "But I was too tall to surf. I tried it, but it didn't work."

Withey is doing plenty of work these days on the court. Finally. This was a 7-footer who was highly recruited out of high school in San Diego and signed with Lute Olson and Arizona. However, he left Tucson without ever playing a game.

"It just wasn't a stable place," said Withey, who was in Tucson the season that Russ Pennell and Mike Dunlap basically shared the head-coaching duties. "Coach Olson and Coach [Josh] Pastner had recruited me, but both had left and I wasn't sure who I'd be playing for the next season and the rest of my college career."

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So Withey packed up quickly and transferred to Kansas -- a spot with a head coach who had recruited him out of high school. He sat out the first year, then waited his turn behind guys like Marcus and Markieff Morris -- as well as Thomas Robinson -- before getting his shot this season. He also has dealt with numerous injuries since arriving in Lawrence.

But now he's thriving. He played well in spurts earlier this season, even against Kentucky in Madison Square Garden, but his offensive game is what has progressed under the tutelage of Danny Manning. Withey is averaging 20.3 points, 12 boards and 6.3 blocks in the past three games.

"He's been as important to our success as anyone on our team," Manning said.

Yes, that includes T-Rob or Tyshawn Taylor.

The one area that Bill Self and the Jayhawks staff are still trying to work with Withey, though, is becoming tougher and more intense.

"I grew up in a Christian home. I'm a Christian," Withey said. "I've always been told to be nice to other people. I'm really laid-back. Everyone tries to get me pissed off before the games -- even my dad."

"It's starting to work," he added.

The return of Wayne's World

For a while, it looked as though Louisville freshman Wayne Blackshear wasn't going to play at all this season.

The talented Illinois native suffered his first major shoulder injury in a collision with Cody Zeller at last year's McDonald's All-American Game. Then, only days after being cleared by the NCAA to play this season, he dislocated his other shoulder, the right one, in practice trying to get over a screen.

"Just bad luck," Blackshear said.

The target date for his return was supposed to be, according to Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, sometime in early January. However, Blackshear was out of shape and then came down with the stomach flu. He finally made his much-anticipated debut against West Virginia on Saturday and finished with 13 points in 20 minutes.

"I was surprised," Blackshear said of how much run he received in his first college game. "I thought I'd get a few minutes."

Blackshear, along with fellow frosh Chane Behanan, was one of the main reasons why the Cards were ranked so high in the preseason. If the 6-foot-5 wing is healthy, he's arguably the team's most talented player.

"I'm probably about 85 percent right now," he admitted. "I'm a guy that plays real hard and is real aggressive. I leave it all on the floor."

Blackshear only logged a few minutes in the loss to Syracuse on Monday night, but that was more about his inability to pick up the nuances of the Orange's 2-3 zone. Look for him to get more playing time this weekend when Blackshear returns home and plays against DePaul in Chicago.

Blackshear always was regarded as a difference-maker for Pitino and the Cardinals. Maybe it's not too late.

UConn's NCAA plea

Connecticut is throwing itself at the feet of the NCAA in an attempt to be eligible to participate in the 2013 NCAA tournament. The Huskies, in registering their second appeal on the matter, have suggested cutting back regular-season games in an effort to focus more on academics.

But the NCAA shouldn't have any mercy since it didn't display any with a handful of teams that didn't qualify to play in this year's NCAA tourney -- Chicago State, Cal State Northridge, Louisiana-Monroe, Grambling and Southern -- because of the APR (Academic Progress Report).

The question now could become what happens with UConn. Its head coach, 69-year-old Jim Calhoun, is out because of back issues. If there's no NCAA tourney, it's highly unlikely that Andre Drummond or Jeremy Lamb stick around. My guess is that then-senior big man Alex Oriakhi transfers elsewhere to play his final season. What about guys like Roscoe Smith, DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright? Do they leave?

UConn could take a mammoth hit because, let's face it, the only NCAA sanction that truly matters is taking away postseason play. Programs can sustain recruiting sanctions (i.e. loss of scholarships, days on the road), but not being able to go to the NCAA tournament is the ultimate blow.

Most improved players

Jeff Withey: See above

Fab Melo, Syracuse: The team's lone setback came without their sophomore big man. He was out of shape and largely ineffective a year ago, but has become a factor -- and a key one -- on both ends of the court this season.

Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State: The Aztecs guards (Franklin is actually being forced to play forward this season) have been phenomenal. Tapley is the lone holdover and an afterthought from last season's starting unit while the ultra-athletic Franklin barely played a year ago. Both are averaging at least 16 points this season and are the primary reasons San Diego State is a Top 25 team.

Will Barton, Memphis: His play has slowed a bit, but the long and talented Tigers sophomore has been sensational nearly all year. He's averaging 18.2 points and 8.2 boards -- up from 12.3 and 4.9 as a freshman.

Henry Sims, Georgetown: Coach John Thompson III has been waiting for the light to come on -- and it finally has for the talented senior big man. He was a nonfactor his first three years with the Hoyas, but has done it all this season.

Mike Moser, UNLV: Sat out last season after transferring in from UCLA, where he averaged 4.7 minutes -- yes, minutes -- as a freshman. Now one of the nation's elite players, Moser is averaging a double-double (14.7 ppg, 11.4 rpg).

Gorgui Dieng, Louisville: I made fun of Louisville fans when they rejoiced after the Senegalese big man was cleared to play last season, but he has been a major force this season and has made a significant improvement. He has been Rick Pitino's most important player, averaging 10 points, 9.2 boards and 3.3 blocks.

Tim Frazier, Penn State: He's the lone bright spot for the Nittany Lions. The junior guard averaged 6.3 points last season, but is putting up 18.5 points, 6.4 assists and 5.0 boards per contest.

Most disappointing

UConn: We all knew Kemba Walker was important, but no one saw this coming. The Huskies (15-9) also have been without their coach, but this is a team that boasts a couple of lottery picks, so there is no excuse for a 5-7 Big East mark.

Kenny Frease: Xavier's senior big man has been brutal this season -- and it started well before "The Punch" from Cincy's Yancy Gates. He was suspended in the preseason and has been a complete nonfactor in many of the Musketeers' games. He's coming off a two-point, one-rebound performance in a loss to Temple.

Pac-12: The league stinks. As an alum of a team in the league, not even I can defend it. There's not one team that has grabbed a hold of an at-large spot yet.

Terrence Jones: I know he has come on lately, but he's on this list because you're always yearning for more. He's so talented and many thought the light had turned on before the season, but he's still erratic with his play and his effort and often looks disinterested.

Freshman point guards: This was considered a big-time freshman point guard class, but the three top guys -- Marquis Teague (Kentucky), Myck Kabongo (Texas) and Josiah Turner (Arizona) struggled. All three have made progress, though, in recent weeks -- notably Teague.

North Carolina's Killer Instinct: This is a team that lost by 30-plus at Florida State but appeared to be back on track. Then came the home loss to Duke. The Tar Heels have also dropped games against UNLV and at Kentucky (no shame in that one).

Phil Martelli: The Saint Joseph's head coach should have allowed former player Todd O'Brien to play at UAB. Instead, he blocked the seldom-used forward who averaged about a point a game a year ago. #FreeToddO'Brien

Tom Herrion: For his Oscar Award-winning performance when he fell to the floor clutching his chest on the sideline after he took an accidental elbow from Central Florida's Isaiah Sykes.

Ben Howland: When he gave Reeves Nelson chance after chance, he sold out. Finally, he cut ties with the chemistry-killer. But it was too late.

Jeff Tingey (Idaho State), Ross Bjork (Western Kentucky), Kim Record (UNC Greensboro), Dr. Hans Mueh (Air Force), Jim Fallis (NAU): These are all athletic directors that opted to fire their coaches in the middle of the season. Unless something unethical occurred, just wait until the end of the year.

Seat getting hotter

Tom Crean, Frank Haith and Derek Kellogg were all on our preseason Hot Seat list of those who needed to win this season. Mission accomplished. However, here are 10 guys who haven't been quite as fortunate:

1. Bruce Weber, Illinois: There's still hope for the Illini, but the recent skid -- plus an athletic director who hasn't voiced strong support for his coach -- have Weber's future in Champaign in doubt. He should have left for Oklahoma this past offseason.

2. Matt Doherty, SMU: Many figured he was history after last season, but he won enough games to stick around. Now the Mustangs (11-14, 2-8 C-USA) are just not good enough. Doh is likely to go.

3. Herb Sendek, Arizona State: He has one NCAA tourney appearance in six years in Tempe. The Pac-12 is awful and the Sun Devils (8-17, 4-9) rank near the bottom, ahead of only Utah and Southern California.

4. Kevin O'Neill, USC: The Trojans have a new athletic director in Pat Haden and I wouldn't be shocked if a change is made. The team has been ravaged by injuries, but is only 6-20 overall and has one league win.

5. Darrin Horn, South Carolina: Won 21 games his first season, but it has been all downhill since. The bottom half of the SEC, where the Gamecocks (9-15, 1-9) reside, is hardly overwhelming.

6. Chris Lowery, Southern Illinois: It's still amazing to think he was one of the hottest young coaches only a few years ago. But the Salukis are now irrelevant, not only nationally. They are 5-11 in the Missouri Valley, just in front of Bradley for the bottom spot.

7. Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest: He has only been there for two years, but it has been a pair of forgettable ones for the Demon Deacons, who were 1-15 in ACC play last year and are 2-9 this season.

8. Jim Baron, Rhode Island: If he had that NCAA tournament appearance, it would be different. However, fans have become impatient -- and now a 5-21 campaign with a 2-9 league mark could force a change in Kingston.

9. Mike Davis, UAB: If only Todd O'Brien had been freed by Phil Martelli. But he wasn't and the Blazers (10-14, 5-6 C-USA) are not up to this program's standards.

10. Kerry Keating, Santa Clara: He lost one of his top players before the season and star Kevin Foster missed most of league play and is done for the season, but 8-17 and 0-12 in WCC play is ugly no matter how you cut it.

Scout's take

Each week we talk to an NBA executive who gives us his off-the-record thoughts on a player he has seen recently. This week we take a look at UNLV's Mike Moser:

"His biggest asset right now is his ability to play hard and rebound the basketball. He's relentless -- in a similar way as Thomas Robinson and [Michael] Kidd-Gilchrist. Moser's biggest issue is what position he plays at our level -- small forward or power forward. Right now he's caught in between. He's not capable of guarding a three-man, but isn't strong enough and is giving up too much size to check a four-man. I'd say his best chance is to get stronger and try and become an undersized power forward because of his ability to rebound."

"His skill level has improved, but it's still not where it needs to be. He can make shots on the perimeter, but he's not a shot-maker from out there. That's the issue with him down the road as a small forward. He isn't a guy you have to guard out there, and he's also not really a guy who can score on the block right now, either. He's an energy guy right now who gets most of his production from outworking people. There's nothing wrong with that, but he'll have to work on his skill level. He might be able to sneak in the first round this year, but he should go back to college for at least one more season. Then he might even turn into a lottery pick."

Running out the shot clock

 My new list of the top 10 candidates for Coach of the Year (in no particular order)? Notre Dame's Mike Brey, San Diego State's Steve Fisher, Missouri's Frank Haith, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Indiana's Tom Crean, UNLV's Dave Rice, Georgetown's John Thompson III, Murray State's Steve Prohm, Kentucky's John Calipari and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.

 One overlooked aspect about Boston College's win against Florida State last week is that the Eagles were without arguably their best player: freshman guard Patrick Heckmann.

 After Harvard, Murray State and Saint Mary's all fell, just a half-dozen remain unbeaten in league play: Long Beach State (Big West), Utah Valley (Great West), Bucknell (Patriot), Kentucky (SEC), UT-Arlington (Southland) and Mississippi Valley State (SWAC).

 Texas Tech, UC Davis, Loyola (Ill.), Boise State and San Jose State all earned conference wins. That means there are seven teams without a win in conference action: Binghamton (America East), Kennesaw State (Atlantic Sun), Dartmouth (Ivy), South Carolina State (MEAC), Tennessee-Martin (Ohio Valley), Navy (Patriot) and Santa Clara (WCC).

 The Hall of Fame's 2012 Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun Arena (Uncasville, Conn.) will feature Ohio State, Washington, Seton Hall, URI in the top bracket and Albany, Loyola (Md.), UMKC and Norfolk State in the other bracket. The dates are Nov. 16-18.

 I would be surprised if the CAA gets multiple bids following VCU's loss to George Mason on Tuesday night. Shaka Smart's team was the league's best chance, but that loss will hurt. George Mason and Drexel both struggled out of the gate and the conference just isn't nearly as strong overall as it was last year.

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