With Kansas State surging and the purple-clad crowd roaring in the second half of Monday night's matchup against rival Kansas, Jeff Withey made a pair of huge plays that helped the Jayhawks regain momentum.
He tipped in an errant Elijah Johnson jump shot at one end and stuffed Rodney McGruder at the other end, part of an 11-0 Kansas run that enabled the Jayhawks to escape with a 59-53 win.
Withey's 18-point, 11-rebound, nine-block masterpiece was so impressive that it sparked discussion of whether he may be the nation's most improved player this season. Here's a look at where he'd rank on my list:
1. Fab Melo, So., Syracuse: It was less than a year ago that the highly touted Melo was labeled a bust after a discouraging freshman season in which he averaged 2.3 points and 1.9 boards in limited playing time. Now the 7-foot Brazil native has emerged as one of the Big East's top big man and perhaps the most indispensable player in top-ranked Syracuse's rotation. In addition to anchoring Jim Boeheim's two-three zone and fueling Syracuse's fast break by averaging 3.0 blocked shots per game, Melo has also scored in double figures in seven of the 11 Big East games he has played. He credits his improvement to an improved offseason diet that enabled him to shed weight and build greater stamina.
2. Jamaal Franklin, So., San Diego State: Since Franklin wasn't likely to crack San Diego State's rotation last season, coach Steve Fisher suggested to him that he redshirt as a freshman and then didn't play him at all in 15 games when he opted against it. Fisher knew he'd count on Franklin more as a sophomore after losing four starters from last year's 34-win team, but even he didn't expect the 6-foot-5 wing to develop this quickly. Despite playing out of position at power forward for the undersized Aztecs, Franklin has forced his way into the starting lineup thanks to his explosive athleticism, knack for rebounding and overhauled jump shot. He is averaging 16.0 points and 7.3 rebounds, good enough to challenge UNLV's Mike Moser for Mountain West Player of the Year.
3. Jeff Withey, Jr., Kansas: An afterthought off the bench his first two seasons at Kansas, Withey has transformed himself from punchline to role player to bonafide weapon in a matter of months. The 7-foot former Arizona transfer has taken advantage of all the attention opposing defenses give Thomas Robinson, scoring 9.5 points per game, grabbing 6.5 rebounds and blocking a Big 12-best 3.4 shots. In his past three games, Withey has averaged 20.3 points and 12.0 rebounds, not bad for a guy who had scored 80 points in 41 career games entering the season.
4. Jack Cooley, Jr., Notre Dame: Mike Brey expected Cooley to break into Notre Dame's starting lineup for the first time this season, but even he didn't know the 6-foot-9 big man would perform this well. Once best known as the guy who resembled predecessor Luke Harangody, Cooley has emerged from that shadow by becoming one of the Big East's most productive big men this season. He shoots 61.1 percent from the field and averages 11.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, pretty good for a guy who only scored in double figures four times in his career prior to this season. How does Brey explain Cooley's success? Good hands, quick feet, a sturdy frame and soaring confidence. Said Brey earlier this month, "At times he can't believe what he's doing, and I want him never to come down to earth."
5. Meyers Leonard, So., Illinois: On an Illinois team that has frustrated fans with its erratic play, Leonard has been a bright spot. The 7-foot-1 center has averaged 13.2 points and 8.0 rebounds, showcasing the mobility, back-to-the-basket game and defensive prowess that made him a coveted recruit two years ago. Buried on the Illinois bench behind seniors Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis as a freshman, Leonard averaged just eight minutes per game and scored in double figures only twice. He showed signs that he might be in line for a breakout sophomore season while on the U.S. U-19 team this summer and then has shown enough potential this winter that many believe he could be a first-round pick if he turns pro in June.
6. Gorgui Dieng, So, Louisville: When Terrence Jennings left school early to enter the NBA draft last spring, there was a reason Louisville coach Rick Pitino didn't seem all that concerned: He knew he had Dieng waiting in the wings to take over the position. Dieng showed promise as a shot blocker and rebounder off the bench as a freshman, but it's his moves in the low post that have developed most. He's averaging 10.0 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.3 blocks as a sophomore, all while shooting 55.8 percent from the floor. And while he looked flustered and hesitant down the stretch against Syracuse on Monday night, that has been the exception rather than the norm.
7. Brock Motum, Jr., Washington State: ESPN's Doug Gottlieb has coined the term "JAG" to describe ordinary players in college basketball. It stands for "Just a Guy" and it was the ideal way to describe Motum prior to this season. One of Washington State's complementary players to Klay Thompson the past two years, Motum averaged 7.6 points and 3.0 rebounds as a sophomore and didn't do a whole lot to make anyone think he was capable of a star turn the following season. Give Motum credit, however, because he has taken advantage of the early departure of DeAngelo Casto and thrived with increased playing time. The 6-foot-10 big man is averaging 17.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 41.8 percent 3-point shooting, an uptick he credits to the work he put into his game during the summer in his native Australia.
8. Garrett Stutz, Sr., Wichita State: For a kid recruited by the likes of Kentucky, Kansas State and Iowa State in high school, Stutz didn't make that big an impact his first three seasons at Wichita State. The 7-footer averaged a modest 7.2 points and 3.5 rebounds as a junior, only occasionally showing flashes of greater potential. That's why it has been such a great surprise for Wichita State to watch Stutz go from supporting player to a lock for first-team all-Missouri Valley. He's averaging a team-high 14.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game and shooting 57.3 percent from the field thanks to soft hands, good touch around the rim and a knack for passing out of double teams.
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