The Kansas Jayhawks had their first test of the season in the State Farm Champions Classic against the Michigan State Spartans. Bill Self‘s team came up short 67-64 and have some things to fix as they set their sights on a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. First on that list: center Jeff Withey.
One of the trademarks of Bill Self’s tenure in Lawrence has been great front court scoring. Last season, it was Thomas Robinson, who averaged 17.7 points per game. Before that, it was the twin duo of Marcus Morris and Markieff Morris who combined for 30.8 points per game. This season, Self seems to be turning to the 7-foot Withey to carry the offensive load down low.
But that might be more than the big man can handle. Withey’s defensive impact on a game can’t be denied, and for the last few seasons, he’s been able to focus on his defensive game while others stepped up on the offensive side of the floor. Withey has never averaged more than 9.0 points per game, which he hit last season.
In the Jayhawks first game of the season against the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks, Withey showed some promise. The center scored 17 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and blocked five shots in a complete game that was exactly what Self was looking for from his senior. But the Redhawks aren’t indicative of the talent level that Kansas is going to face this season.
Tuesday’s game against the Spartans was a better barometer of Withey’s readiness to carry the offensive load. He came up short against Tom Izzo‘s hard-nosed defense. Withey managed just eight points on the night on four-of-five shooting from the field. He got to the free-throw line just one time where he failed to convert a 3-point play.
Even Withey’s defensive contributions were limited. While he did block a pair of shots and alter several others, Withey was caught out of position on several late plays and got beat on what ended up being the game winning lay-up.
All in all, it was not the performance that the Jayhawks need from the big man down low if they hope to have a successful run this season. With a late lead, the Jayhawks were unable to pound the ball inside and get strong, easy baskets or force their way to the free throw line. They were forced to play on the perimeter down the stretch and weren’t able to connect on enough shots to hold off the late Spartan rally.
Self will need to get better production out of his center in order for the Jayhawks to play up to their full potential. Withey has to find his offensive groove by getting tough around the rim and attacking the basket to be a presence down low. If not, Kansas will need to find front court production from someone else or the Jayhawks will be doomed to disappointment.