NCAA Tournament

Kansas sees the nation’s best player as another obstacle to overcome

The superlatives and accolades continue to flow for Kentucky freshman forward Anthony Davis. He’s been voted the national player, freshman and defensive player of the year.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino even compared Davis to the legendary Bill Russell, a multiple NBA and NCAA champion.

“When you have a guy like that — they come along once in a lifetime — he just changes the game for you,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said earlier this season.

Davis, who is long and lean at 6 feet 10, leads the Wildcats in scoring (14.4 points) and rebounds (10.2) per game, with 20 double-doubles, including 18 points and 14 boards in Saturday night’s semifinal win over Louisville. He has a soft touch with either hand when shooting turn-around jumpers and baby hooks, yet ferociously throws down jams when the ball is above the rim.

Davis also leads the nation in blocked shots, with a school-record 180 (4.6 per game), including five against Louisville.

“He doesn’t block it in your hands; he lets you release it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “That’s what great shot-blockers do. They never try to get it in your hand. He’s blocking more shots away from his man than this own man. … It kind of sets him apart.”

Davis will be the latest big man standing in Kansas’ way in the Jayhawks’ quest for a national championship. Kansas’ 7-foot Jeff Withey, the Big 12 defensive player of the year, neutralized the other big men the Jayhawks have faced in the tournament, though none were in Davis’ class.

Withey, who has blocked a school-record 136 shots (3.5 per game), has swatted away 27 in five tournament games, including a national-semifinal record seven against Ohio State. Davis has blocked 23 in the tournament (4.6 per game). Joakim Noah holds the record for most blocks in an NCAA Tournament, with 29 in Florida’s six-game run to the 2006 title.

“Anthony is probably the best shot-blocker in the country,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “If he is, I think we’ve got the second-best right here. … I don’t know of anybody out there who blocks shots or alters better than Jeff does. You’re going to have two great shot-blockers going up against each other.”

Withey’s been at his best as a shot-blocker in the last three games of the tournament.

His favorite performance?

It came in KU’s 60-57 win over North Carolina State in the Sweet 16, when he tied a school record with 10 blocked shots and came within one of the NCAA Tournament single-game record.

“I got a block at the end of the game that kind of sealed the deal,” Withey said of his stuffing C.J. Leslie with 18 seconds to play.

“Against North Carolina, I got another big block, tipped it out to Tyshawn, got a layup,” he said of a play that was part of a 12-0 run against Tar Heels bigs Tyler Zeller and John Henson.

Withey delivered several big blocks on Saturday night against Ohio State. They came against men big and small. Just before halftime, he blocked a shot by Buckeyes guard Aaron Craft that sparked a fast-break basket by Travis Releford that trimmed the Jayhawks’ deficit to nine points at the break.

“My teammates definitely look at me and see me as a rim protector,” Withey said, “so they know if they get beat, I’m there.”

During one stretch of the game, he blocked three consecutive shot attempts by Buckeyes All-American Jared Sullinger.

And when Kansas led 60-59 with 1:18 to play, Withey rejected William Buford’s shot, leading to an Elijah Johnson layup and three-point lead.

“The block on Buford was unbelievable,” Self said. “He turns two points for Ohio State into two points for us because Elijah made a great play.”

As for tonight’s matchup against Davis, the Jayhawks’ big men will not be intimidated.

“He’s a good player,” said Kansas’ Thomas Robinson. “But he’s not Superman. We’re not going to change anything we do.”