After painful saga, Withey becomes force
by Eric Prisbell, USA TODAY Sports
LAWRENCE, Kan. — As Jeff Withey gritted his teeth, his legs turned to Jell-O as he moved his 7-foot frame up every step in every aisle of Kansas’ legendary Allen Fieldhouse, wanting desperately to get this punishment over as quickly as his fast-churning legs would allow.
But the most pronounced pain — embarrassment and anger that he grimaces at seven months later — came internally. If Withey, who was summoned to the steps after failing to dive for a loose ball in practice, feared anything, it was being labeled the team’s weak link.
“I don’t want to say he woke up,” teammate Elijah Johnson says. “But he woke up.”
February’s 15-minute step-running session served as the pivotal moment in a college career that needed a jump start. After struggling to get on the court for most of his injury-riddled career, this was the ignition point.
A few days later, Withey’s parents, Debbie and Mike, watched on television as their son scored a career-high 25 points against Baylor. They saw him snare a career-high 20 rebounds three days later against Oklahoma State. He brought home Oscar Robertson national player of the week honors.
“That’s the Jeffree that we know!” Debbie Withey recalls hollering at the television. “I have been waiting for three years for that to happen. And all of the sudden, it went crazy. My husband and I are looking at each other, screaming and going, ‘What the heck?’”
An appropriate question. College players historically don’t emerge from relative obscurity to block an NCAA-record 31 shots, including 10 in a Sweet 16 victory against North Carolina State, in six tournament games. They typically don’t go from spending most of their career on the bench to seriously contemplating a jump to the NBA after a junior season in which they earned Big 12 defensive player of the year honors.
The road has been turbulent. Debbie Withey turns emotional when she reflects, saying, “He just knew he would get through it. He had more faith in the situation than I did, a lot more than I did. Every day, every single day, I just pray. He’s got to … [For more on After painful saga, Withey becomes frontcourt force, click here.]