NEW ORLEANS -- The five Kansas starters piled into a golf cart in the Superdome hallway Sunday, dutifully on their way to yet another scheduled media engagement. Center Jeff Withey, one of the defensive stars of this NCAA tournament, smartly grabbed half of the rear-facing backbench and uncoiled his legs. As the cart pulled away and cruised slowly down the corridor, Withey casually let his right foot bounce and scrape on the hallway floor. It was the kind of playfulness you'd expect to see from a child, but in this case, it hinted at an older one's contentedness.
In one small vignette, on the eve of the biggest game of his life, Withey showed off his length, his preternatural California cool, and his newfound comfort as a Jayhawk. Kansas will need all of those traits in ample doses Monday night if it hopes to upset Kentucky and take home the national title. It's not overstating matters to think the matchup of Withey and national player of the year Anthony Davis, defensive deterrents who will test each other on each end of the floor, may decide the contest.
"[Davis] is probably the best shot-blocker in the country," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "If he is, I think we have the second-best right here, two great shot-blockers going at each other."
Davis' pterodactyl-like reach has spawned both frantic resale markets for limited-edition posters and collective giddiness for NBA general managers whose teams are headed to the lottery. One of them surely will take Davis No. 1 overall in this summer's draft. It's not chic to question Davis' hegemony as the college game's preeminent defensive game-changer, but according to KenPom.com, it was Withey who blocked the highest percentage of opponents' shots this season while on the court, by a considerable margin (15.4 percent to Davis' 13.8).
Withey's swatting helped Kansas to the nation's best two-point field goal defense. Mix in frontcourt partner Thomas Robinson's nation-leading defensive rebounding rate and it's no wonder why Kansas is one of the nation's elite defensive teams. Withey's ability to man the post without regular help, as he showed Saturday night when he locked down Ohio State star Jared Sullinger, has been a huge factor.
"I think Thomas would be the first to tell you Jeff takes a lot of pressure off of him," Self said. "Jeff can guard the other team's best big man, which allows Thomas to roam." Six months ago, very few would have believed any of this possible -- that the Jayhawks would be playing for a national title or that Withey would be that a central figure. Then again, both the team and its center have come a long way since. For Withey, the road to semi-stardom has actually been a good deal longer.
From an early high school verbal to Louisville, to enrolling at Arizona, to transferring to Kansas without having played a game in Tucson, to being buried behind Cole Aldrich, the Morris twins and Thomas, Withey had a difficult start to life in Lawrence. Coming in as a midyear transfer was awkward, although Robinson more or less took Withey under his wing even as he was creating his own rep in the program. Withey didn't have any real consistent playing role until this season; he played just four minutes in Kansas' final 10 games last season. That's perhaps why the former highly rated prep star's success this year seems a surprise to outsiders, even if he always retained confidence himself.
"This year, a lot of people didn't know what to expect out of me, but I kind of knew I could play," Withey said. "Coach [Danny] Manning had taught me a lot and playing against those guys. So even though people had a lot of doubts about me, I definitely didn't have them about myself."
There will be times on Monday night when Kansas wishes it had Manning, soon headed to Tulsa as its new head coach, available as an offensive option. Even the current-day Manning, almost a quarter century removed from his Kansas team's miracle national title run, may be a more polished option than Withey, who is still developing his offensive game.
Withey only has one double-digit scoring game in the NCAAs and has only scored more than 11 points once since mid-February, but establishing himself as a threat against Kentucky will be imperative. The Wildcats are not a team that will treat kindly a foe with limited options, and every ounce of Davis' energy Withey can consume is a win for one of his teammates, as driving lanes may be a touch wider if Davis is otherwise occupied.
"It's going to be really important," Withey said of being a credible offensive option. "I've gotta make sure he guards somebody, so he's not just in the middle blocking shots."
Withey credits his San Diego beach volleyball background for his own shot-blocking prowess and spoke fondly on Sunday of some past workouts with Chase Budinger, who also grew up in the city and went on to attend Arizona. Despite those stories and his seat on the golf cart, though, Withey doesn't spend very much time these days looking back. It's taken awhile, but he's found his place at Kansas. Now with his teammates' trust and Robinson right by his side, Withey now can look forward -- perhaps all the way to a national championship celebration Monday night.