Davis, Withey plan their block party
NEW ORLEANS -- Anthony Davis marched up the staircase to the Superdome's interview room podium Sunday afternoon with a practice jersey dangling from his neck. It resembled a blue and white cape as it rested on the back of the Wooden Award winner and shot-blocking machine.
"I mean, Anthony Davis is a great player, Thomas Robinson said in a news conference later that day, "but he's not Superman."
But Davis might be this generation's Russell or Chamberlain on defense.
Davis' ability to swat shots has fueled comparisons to some of the greatest shot-blockers in college basketball history. He has blocked 11 shots in Kentucky's past two games. And he has recorded 180 blocks in the 2011-12 season, just two shy of Hassan Whiteside's Division I freshman record.
But the opposing big man in Monday night's national title game, Kansas' Jeff Withey, actually has the higher block rate (15.39 percent to Davis' 13.76 percent).
Withey hasn't attracted the same accolades or NBA scouts Davis has. But the 7-footer is a similar defensive monster.
His seven blocks against Ohio State on Saturday established a record for the Final Four, a mark previously held by Jayhawks assistant Danny Manning. Withey is two blocks short of tying Joakim Noah's record of 29 blocks in a single NCAA tournament.
He's the only player in NCAA tourney history to record seven or more blocks in separate games (he had 10 against NC State in the Sweet 16) since the NCAA began recording blocks in the 1986-87 season, per ESPN Stats & Information.
The national championship clash features a variety of sexy storylines.
John Calipari against Bill Self, the coach who led Kansas to a national title against Calipari's Memphis squad in 2008. Davis versus Robinson, the top national player of the year candidates for the majority of the season. A battle between the two winningest programs in NCAA men's basketball history.
But the collision of the game's top swat masters shouldn't be ignored in the buildup to Monday night.
Their performances in the NCAA tournament and postseason history suggest that the two interior roadblocks will sway the final outcome.
The last time the championship matchup featured two players with the high-level blocking skills possessed by Withey and Davis, Greg Oden and Noah dueled in the 2007 national title game.
Florida earned the victory, but Noah failed to record a block. Oden recorded all four of Ohio State's rejections.
"[Davis is] probably the best shot-blocker in the country. If he is, and I think we've got the second-best right here, two great shot-blockers [will be] going at each other," Self said.
Withey said he hopes he can help the Jayhawks contain Davis by limiting his effectiveness in transition and using his length to frustrate him.
"I'm going to make sure he doesn't get ahead of me to get easy dunks," Withey said. "They love to throw the lob to him. I think that my length could bother that because I'm so long that I might be able to deflect the pass."
Davis said the Wildcats have to stop Kansas' two-man low-post attack with Withey and Robinson.
"They're a great team, capable of beating us. They have a great inside post presence. Robinson and Withey, they try to do the two-man game, just like Coach said, try to get easy buckets inside," he said. "It's going to be a great challenge for us."
The elite shot-blockers have produced similar numbers with contrasting approaches to the craft.
Both players can send a ball back with force or keep it in play with a delicate denial.
Withey likes to spike it.
When Aaron Craft beat Tyshawn Taylor off the dribble in the final minutes of KU's win over Ohio State on Saturday, Withey rose up and slammed the ball off the backboard. William Buford sealed Elijah Johnson on OSU's next possession for an easy layup attempt, but it was really just a set for Withey, who slapped the shot to the other side of the rim.
Playing beach volleyball in his hometown of San Diego helped Withey learn the nuances of blocking shots. It's a different sport with a similar philosophy, he said.
"I would say playing volleyball helped more than hurt anything. Volleyball has so much to do with basketball. That's what gives me my shot-blocking ability," Withey said.
Davis said he's not sure how or where he learned to block shots. A significant growth spurt transformed the freshman from a guard to a power forward with uncanny defensive skills in high school.
"I never worked on it; it just came to me," he said.
Yet he's averaging 4.6 blocks per game.
He blocks shots with a grace that prompted Louisville coach Rick Pitino to use Bill Russell's name in discussing Davis' defensive prowess after his team's loss to the Wildcats in the Final Four.
Davis can throw shots into the stands, but he's far more interested in giving his team a chance to score on the other end. Entering the Final Four, he had kept 99 of his 175 blocks in play, per ESPN Stats & Info. Kentucky scored 101 points off those possessions.
It's poetic to see a 6-foot-10 forward extend his lengthy arms and execute a block with perfect timing and touch without sending the shot into the student section.
Davis tries to block shots as if they're beach balls. Once there's contact, the ball rises briefly before falling to the ground like a leaf.
"He doesn't block it in your hands; he lets you release it. That's what great shot-blockers do," Kentucky coach Calipari said. "They never try to get it in your hand. Even though he will block his own man's shot, it's the other guys he's getting most of the time, which means he's nimble, quick to the ball; he's got a quick twitch."
Both players give their respective squads and coaches the freedom to take defensive risks that teams without a high-level shot-blocker refuse to attempt.
Players from both teams said they're willing to gamble on defense because they know Withey and Davis are behind them.
Kansas has held its past four opponents to a 24.0 field goal percentage, 24.2 points per game and an 18.4 percent clip from beyond the arc after halftime.
The Wildcats have also been strong on defense. They're ranked 11th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.
Withey and Davis alone aren't responsible for those numbers. But the duo disrupts offenses in so many ways that it's easy to see how crucial both players are on that end of the floor.
"The thing about it is, guys like Anthony and guys like Jeff cover up mistakes," Self said.