KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Maybe with Jeff Withey, we’ve got this thing all wrong. Because he doesn’t fly through the air like Ben McLemore or beat his chest like Elijah Johnson, we take him for granted. Because he doesn’t flex his muscles for the cameras, because he doesn’t have a shtick, we see only the flaws, a glass that’s agonizingly half-empty.
We miss so much. So dang much.
Withey’s game is guilty of one sin, mostly: It’s boring. Excellent, but boring. Because it’s boring, we don’t appreciate the wild dives to the floor, the footwork, the motor that seems to run all night. We don’t appreciate the fact that whenever Kansas is in trouble — and it happens, even to the best of them — coach Bill Self has that 7-foot security blanket within arm’s reach.
“(Withey) gets it so deep,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews noted, glumly, after his Billikens dropped a 73-59 decision to the 12th-ranked Jayhawks in the championship of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic. “He’s got good hands and is so long. We fight around him and do a good job, but they are well-schooled.
“They throw it right back to the backboard like it’s the back of the end zone, like those NFL quarterbacks. And seems like they have quite a few of those quarterbacks … if you get behind him, he just buries you deep.”
And anytime Saint Louis would get off the ground late Tuesday night, out came the shovel. Twice in the final six minutes, the scrappy (but smallish) Billikens got within 10 points of favored Kansas. Twice, the Jayhawks simply fed the rock to their senior center, who tied his career high with 25 points, and got the heck out of the way.
Saint Louis cuts it to 61-51? There’s Withey, with 4:46 left in the tilt, dropping the baby hook shot.
Saint Louis cuts it to 65-56? There’s Withey, with 3:29 left, laying it up, getting hacked, and converting the 3-point play.
The Billikens are a feisty bunch, an NCAA Tourney team last winter and a good bet to make it two Big Dances in a row. But feisty is no answer for a 7-foot senior with national championship experience. In the Billikens’ defense, few mid-majors have that kind of answer handy.
“Obviously,” Crews observed, “the big kid got away from us.”
And away. And away. The Jayhawks outscored Saint Louis in the paint, 32-12, and held the Billikens to cringe-worthy shooting percentage of 34.6 from the floor, 26.1 in the first half.
“Yeah, like you said, it’s really frustrating,” SLU forward Cody Ellis sighed. “But there’s nothing we can really do about it now.”
From a chutzpah standpoint, the Billikens matched Kansas, tough for tough, at nearly every step. Realistically, though, it was a tease. About the time Saint Louis would get its mojo back, Withey would spin inside and deliver another soul-crusher.
A reporter asked Self after the game if Withey and company had flexed their respective muscles in crunch time. The coach grinned.
“(That’s the) first time I’ve heard the word ‘muscle’ speaking about Jeff,” Self chuckled.
Again, we miss so much. So dang much.
“As players and coaches, we know what he does for the team,” Kansas guard Travis Releford allowed. “We know if we get beat, we know we’ve got Jeff out there to alternate the guys’ shots. We definitely appreciate that a whole lot.”
For Kansas, it played out as almost the perfect scenario: In the first half, SLU was so focused on preventing the feed to Withey in the post that it left Releford free to roam. After Releford netted 21 points over the first 20 minutes, Crews was forced to adjust, leaving Withey 1-on-1 in the blocks late.
Between the 9:30 and 3:30 mark of the second half, the Jayhawks scored 11 points, and Withey was responsible for nine of them. It was like a football team with a five-point lead and the ball with four minutes left in the contest, handing off to the fullback, trying to milk the clock.
“I definitely don’t mind it,” the Jayhawks’ center said. “But that definitely wasn’t just me. My teammates did it all for me … I definitely don’t mind being the closer, though.”
Jeff Withey, closer. The big lug smiled. He liked the sound of that. A lot.