LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It hasn't been an easy season for Jae'Lyn Withers.
Ahead of this season, there was very real NBA chatter surrounding the Louisville forward. After taking a redshirt year in 2019-20 to get acclimated to the college game, he then averaged 10.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting a team-best 54.9 percent from the field last season.
He was named to the ACC All-Freshman team for his efforts, becoming the Cardinals' first conference All-Freshman selection since Chane Behanan in 2012.
However, through much of the 2021-22 season, Withers has been far from the same player he was during his breakout year. He put up some solid early performances during Louisville's non-conference slate, but had been almost a complete non-factor since then.
Heading into Louisville's Wednesday night game against Boston College, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward had averaged just 2.5 points and 3.7 rebounds over the Cardinals' previous 10 games. He had put up zero points in three of the last four.
But against the Eagles, the Withers we had come to expect this season made his appearance.
The Charlotte, N.C. native played a key role in Louisville snapping their three-game losing streak, finishing with 10 points and five to help lead the Cards to a 67-54 victory over the Eagles. It was his first time scoring in double figures since late November against Mississippi State in the Bahamas.
"I am just really happy for Jae’Lyn," head coach Chris Mack said. "He has had a tough season. He hasn’t hung his head and he has made mistakes and he knows it. He has owned it. He hasn’t pointed a finger. You are always happy for your players when they have success like he did tonight."
From the jump, Withers was active on both ends of the floor. Instead of looking lost - like he had numerous times this year - he was decisive in his decision making, aggressive around the rim and playing with a confidence we had not seen since last season.
"It is evident that he is listening and trying to put it into practice," Mack said.
Last season, Withers was playing almost exclusively at the five, filling in for the injured Malik Williams. This year, he made the transition back to his natural position at the four spot.
As you can imagine, he has has spent a lot more time out on the perimeter this season than he did last year. Maybe, in fact, too much. Heading into the game against Boston College, 46.3 percent of his total field goal attempts were beyond the arc, and he was only connecting on them at a 25.0 percent clip.
His approach completely changed against the Eagles. He set the tone early with an emphatic dunk attempt early into his court time, and that was enough to get him going. He finished the game going 4-5 inside the arc and 2-3 on free through attempts, and didn't even attempt his lone three-point attempt until 4:00 left in the game.
"I definitely got to live around the rim more so than, I guess, outside on the perimeter," Withers said. "That was probably my strong suit, as of last year. Probably gotta get back to it."
Time will tell if this was truly a breakout performance that sets the table for a strong second half of the season, or if it was simply an outlier. Withers thinks it's the latter, but he'll still have to stay the course and continue working hard.
"It's definitely been tough, but I've had a lot of family members and previous coaches tell me to stay positive in the situation," he said. "Everything was pretty much gonna work out, and I think tonight is the start. But you got to keep building, for sure."
(Photo of Jae’Lyn Withers, Quinten Post: Jamie Rhodes - USA TODAY Sports)
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