The return of the great shot-blockers
Anthony Davis and Jeff Withey never beefed with words during the national title game in New Orleans last month. Instead, they exchanged jabs with swats. As Davis embarrassed the Jayhawks by throwing their shots out of bounds, Withey tried to match him with his own forceful blocks.
"I don't talk trash or anything like that. But I definitely wanted to try to get in his head by playing really good defense," Withey said. "We were definitely going at it. It was definitely in the back of my head that I wanted to show the world that I was the best shot-blocker."
The end result: Withey established an NCAA tournament record with 31 blocks, and Davis -- who tied for No. 2 with 29 blocks in the tourney -- earned Most Outstanding Player honors even though he hit just one shot in 10 attempts against KU. But he also finished with 16 rebounds, three steals and six blocks on that final night.
It was a throwback moment as the national stage belonged to big men who specialized in rim protection. They're difficult to identify and nurture in the era of Post Player 2.0, a 21st-century athlete that tends to pursue finesse and versatility over a commitment to the paint. But the national title game emphasized the value of big men who block shots.
Any player can do it. But the elite post guardians mold the flow of a game, and proved it in the Big Easy.
"By the time we were in the Final Four, I felt like I had a ton of confidence," Withey said. "I felt like I played with a different swagger."
Next season, teams will rely on a fleet of returning and incoming freshmen with the potential to control games via interior defense.
Both Withey and Louisville's Gorgui Dieng chose to come back for another season after standout performances in the Final Four. Davis recently told a reporter that Kentucky-bound Nerlens Noel, the No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2012, is the better shot-blocker between the two of them. Many recruiting experts agree.
And he won't be alone. In a sport in which it seems star centers have all but disappeared, five of the top eight incoming freshmen in the ESPN 100 play the 5. You have to get to No. 10 on the list to find the first guard.
Steven Adams, a 6-foot-10 center from New Zealand, could immediately erase memories of last season's misfortunes at Pitt. Fellow freshmen Cameron Ridley (Texas) and Adam Woodbury (Iowa) have the shot-blocking aptitude to make immediate impacts, too.
Isaiah Austin, a McDonald's All-America center who averaged five blocks per game as a senior in high school, should keep Baylor in the Big 12 hunt next season. And in the West, Sean Miller will welcome 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski at Arizona.
In fact, Miller's entire recruiting class boasts size. It was an obvious deficiency for last season's Wildcats. Solomon Hill, then a 6-6 junior, played power forward during a rocky 2011-12 campaign.
Tarczewski, however, anchors an incoming crew that will make the Wildcats much bigger inside. He's equipped with the raw tools to boost Arizona's defense, which finished No. 43 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings last season.
"You turn to score on him, it's not easy," Miller said. "Last year at Arizona, if you look at what kept us from taking the next step, we were very small."
But size alone doesn't guarantee success. Five of the top 10 shot-blockers from last season were 6-9 or smaller, although most of those athletes competed for mid-majors.
Still, Georgia State's Ron Hunter said height is a deceptive component when assessing a player's potential to block shots. Eric Buckner, a 6-7 senior for the Panthers last season, finished with 3.4 blocks per game (fifth nationally).
"By the time we were in the Final Four, I felt like I had a ton of confidence. I felt like I played with a different swagger."” -- Kansas center Jeff Withey
Hunter said Buckner's wingspan and athleticism enhanced his shot-blocking prowess, even though he was rarely the tallest guy on the floor. And as he improved, he developed a passion for blocks.
"He started to enjoy it. Halfway through the season he looked at me and said, 'Hey Coach, I never considered myself to be a shot-blocker,'" Hunter said. "There's a difference of being a great shot-blocker and having great length."
Some of the best are blessed with both.
Austin, who will man the paint for Scott Drew in Waco, is a 7-1 center. That didn't stop him from playing point guard occasionally on the AAU circuit. That combination of versatility, size and a ridiculous wingspan positions Austin to become an immediate "eraser" for the Bears next season, Drew said.
"Isaiah is not only going to block a lot of shots, he's going to alter shots and make people think twice about their shots," Drew said.
World-class shot-blockers get credit for blocking and altering shots at the rim, but internally, their teammates recognize their effect on the entire defensive unit.
Louisville overcame multiple injuries and a troubling regular-season finish to reach the Final Four. Led by point guard Peyton Siva, the Cardinals relied on their perimeter depth in the NCAA tournament.
But Dieng, a 6-11 center from Senegal who averaged 3.2 blocks per game last season, set the tone for the squad with the No. 1 ranking in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. He didn't get the same publicity as Withey and Davis, but Dieng's shot-blocking was equally vital for his program's postseason success.
"It just allowed us to do more gambling because he was a great clean-up guy," Louisville assistant Wyking Jones said. "[Our guards] could somewhat gamble on defense and know that if they got beat, we had someone back there to clean up their mistakes. So it allowed us to be a little more aggressive on defense."
Akron coach Keith Dambrot knows the feeling. He said Zeke Marshall, a 7-footer who blocked 2.9 shots per game last season, allows the Zips to take risks that they wouldn't take without him. Marshall is a rarity on any level. But he's extraordinary among mid-major centers.
Mississippi State star Arnett Moultrie finished 2-for-13 (eight points) in the Bulldogs' upset loss to Akron. Blame Marshall.
Dambrot's constant concern, however, is that foul trouble will stifle his star center.
"That's taken time just to teach him the discipline not to foul, when to just square up and make them shoot over you and when to block it," Dambrot said.
St. Joseph's coach Phil Martelli emphasizes the Bill Russell method when advising C.J. Aiken, who ranked third nationally with 3.6 blocks per game as a sophomore last season. The highlight-reel swats that draw oohs and aahs from fans don't help if the opposing team maintains possession. So Martelli tells Aiken to keep the ball in play and coaches Aiken's teammates to treat the block like a rebound or loose ball.
Although Aiken and players like him receive the most praise for blocks, that's not their greatest trait, Martelli said. Aiken also affects the game by altering shots, a stat that's not included in the typical box score.
"It's almost like you're sending a subtle message to the other team that the lane and easy shots in the lane are not going to be easy to come by," Martelli said. "I think to block shots and alter shots and to be a factor defensively without fouling is enormous."
Players such as Aiken are not easy to find. But most coaches agree that's they're limited in their ability to develop shot-blockers. It's usually a natural skill that's enhanced as players gain strength and experience.
Withey recognized his shot-blocking ability as a beach volleyball player in San Diego. At one point in his youth athletic career, he played more volleyball than basketball. The sport helped him develop the proper timing to block shots on the hardwood.
After transferring from Arizona to Kansas, Withey's daily battles with Cole Aldrich and the Morris twins (Markieff and Marcus) made him tougher. Today, he's the nation's top shot-blocker -- having sported the highest block percentage in the nation last season, per Pomeroy.
Like the other block artists throughout the country, he's still perfecting the craft.
But he's always had the gift.
"I think it's a quality or a characteristic that you have in your athletic makeup," said new Tulsa coach Danny Manning, once a prolific shot-blocker himself who taught Withey as an assistant at KU. "To me, a lot of times, it's just a matter of learning how to harness it."
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