In praise of Jeff Withey, Kansas’ unheralded frontcourt savior

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If Scott Drew never coaches against Jeff Withey again, he’ll be just fine with that.

Kansas’ 7-foot junior center has defied convention when playing Baylor this season. The Bears feature a lineup of future pros in Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and possibly even Quincy Acy. Yet Withey – who until this season languished on KU’s bench – has played like the lottery pick in both games.

His 10-point, 10-rebound (9 offensive) performance in their Jan. 16 win was overshadowed by Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. So he topped that with a career-high 25 points in Wednesday’s 68-54 win.

“I don’t know why Withey likes playing against us so much, but he looks like an All-American when he does,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said.

No joke. Withey missed just two field-goal attempts and made 9 of 11 free throws and surpassed his career high in points by halftime. He’s always been the Jayhawks’ unheralded weapon on defense – few players block a higher percentage of shots – but the scoring was a welcome sight for KU. Robinson had foul trouble and was ineffective early.

That left things to Withey.

“Coach[Bill Self] definitely got into my head and just told me that I need to be able to play,” Withey said. “I can’t go games where I don’t score. … My teammates definitely trusted me. They made great plays and got me open.”

Self (and assistant Danny Manning, who’s tutelage is essential to Withey’s development) has been brilliant in handling Withey. His increased role has freed up Robinson on offense and defense and given the Jayhawks some size advantages. But Withey’s also just found his niche.

From C.J. Moore’s blog:

Self deserves much of the credit for getting Withey with it against Baylor’s zone. The Bears got out to a hot start, in large part, because they were able to frustrate Thomas Robinson. Any time Robinson got the ball, the Bears surrounded him with three defenders. Sloppiness ensued.

Self calmed his team down after Baylor’s initial burst, and then he figured out that so much attention was being paid to Robinson, Withey would have a chance to get some good looks around the rim. The Jayhawks went to work by getting with the ball two different ways: Tyshawn Taylor’s penetration and getting the ball to the short corner.

“We found a little hole in the short corner, playing big to big, and that was a big bonus for us,” Self said.

As Moore writes, the more Withey plays, the more Kansas will benefit. It’s that simple. His offensive game continues to evolve and there’s no question his presence boosts Robinson. In fact, Withey may now be Kansas’ third option given Elijah Johnson’s prolonged shooting slump.

But as Baylor will attest, that’s not a bad thing.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.