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Pete Thamel
November 12, 2012
A ninth straight Big 12 title pivots on a center who has gone from Stiffy to stud
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November 12, 2012

3 Kansas

A ninth straight Big 12 title pivots on a center who has gone from Stiffy to stud

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PG Elijah Johnson 6'4" Sr. 10.2 ppg 3.5 apg
SG Travis Releford 6'6" Sr. 8.5 ppg 4.2 rpg
G-F Ben McLemore* 6'5" Fr. 28.3 ppg 6.2 apg
PF Kevin Young 6'8" Sr. 3.4 ppg 3.0 rpg
C Jeff Withey 7'0" Sr. 9.0 ppg 3.6 bpg
PF Perry Ellis† 6'8" Fr. 25.8 ppg 1.6 apg
PG Naadir Tharpe 5'11" Soph. 0.9 ppg 0.7 apg

A pure center emerged last year during the NCAA tournament. He was a star in the national title game and earned NBA draft buzz. No, not Kentucky's Anthony Davis but the guy who stonewalled him in the title game.

Kansas center Jeff Withey enhanced his reputation more than any other player in last year's Big Dance. His 31 blocked shots broke Joakim Noah's record for a single NCAA tournament, but his most impressive contributions can be measured by looking at the stat lines of his high-profile opponents: Ohio State's Jared Sullinger went 5 for 19 in the national semifinals, and Davis, who would be named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player for his defensive contributions, shot 1 for 10 in the championship game.

"It's pretty amazing to watch," says Jayhawks coach Bill Self, "because today you don't see guys who can actually change the game by protecting the lane." In Self's nine years in Lawrence, Kansas's rugged man-to-man defense has ranked in the top 10 nationally in defensive field goal percentage eight times. The other year it was No. 13.

Withey says the Jayhawks' commitment to defense starts in practice, where Self focuses on a vintage staple: shell drills. Withey claims the team works on its defensive positioning for an hour a day, but Self says it's more like 10 to 20 minutes. "It may feel like an hour to them," Self jokes.

The 7-foot Withey was known more as a volleyball star when he arrived in Lawrence two seasons ago weighing 209 pounds. His lack of flexibility earned him the nickname Stiffy. But with a 4,000-calories-a-day diet and some heavy lifting under the direction of strength coach Andrea Hudy, he jumped to 235 pounds. His minutes and confidence grew as his body was transformed. "His freshman year he was our sixth-best big man," Self says.

Now he's one of the country's best. Ending his senior year as an All-America and posing with David Stern as a first-round pick doesn't seem like much of a stretch.

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