Rejection likely in Final Four matchups - USA TODAY

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Rejection likely in Final Four matchups - USA TODAY
Mar 30th 2012, 23:12

NEW ORLEANS - These are some of the best college basketball players in the country, and they have endured, overcome and persevered.

  • If Kansas center Jeff Withey (rear) can block shots against Ohio State as he did against Tyler Zeller of North Carolina, the Jayhawks have a chance of advancing to the national title game.

    Scott Rovak, US PRESSWIRE

    If Kansas center Jeff Withey (rear) can block shots against Ohio State as he did against Tyler Zeller of North Carolina, the Jayhawks have a chance of advancing to the national title game.


If Kansas center Jeff Withey (rear) can block shots against Ohio State as he did against Tyler Zeller of North Carolina, the Jayhawks have a chance of advancing to the national title game.

They have dreamed, triumphed and celebrated.

But Saturday night in the Mercedes Benz Superdome, they will be snubbed, denied and rejected.

This will occur when they drive into the lane and try to get a shot up over Anthony Davis, Gorgui Dieng and Jeff Withey, a trio of big men who might turn the Final Four into Swat Central.

They are the top three shot-blockers in this NCAA tournament:

20 - Withey, Kansas.

18 - Davis, Kentucky.

13 - Dieng, Louisville (tied with North Carolina's Tyler Zeller).

They each set a single-season school record for blocked shots.

And they can set a tone - or turn a game around - with a well-timed return to sender.

As when Kentucky's Davis, on Nov. 15 in a game in Madison Square Garden, blocked some early shots against Kansas and Kentucky went on to win 75-65.

"He was a beast," Kansas guard Conner Teahan recalls. "He's intimidating down there."

He very well could be a beast again Saturday night against Louisville.

But then, so could Louisville's Dieng.

Asked Friday how his team would handle going against Davis, Louisville guard Chris Smith said, "I would say Anthony Davis, he should be worried about Gorgui Dieng."

And Kansas' Withey could be a beast, too, in the other Saturday semifinal against Ohio State. He had 10 blocks in the Sweet 16 against North Carolina State and two late blocks to help clinch a victory over North Carolina in the regional final.

The art of the blocked shot could take center stage on the big stage Saturday.

Here's a closer look at the perpetrators:

The natural

Anthony Davis was just another 6-2 guard going into his junior year of high school, a guy who worried about getting his shot blocked when he drove into the paint.

A year later, he was 6-10 and no longer the blockee.

Now, as a freshman, he is college basketball's Player of the Year.

Did Davis, because of his amazingly quick growth spurt, have to take a while to learn how to think and act like a shot blocker?

"Nope," he says. "Just kind of came naturally."

That would seem to be an understatement, as Davis has blocked 175 shots this season (4.6 per game), a single-season record both at Kentucky and in the Southeastern Conference.

That's a big reason the Wildcats lead the country in opponent's field goal percentage - 37.5%.

And a big reason why, in a couple of months, Davis is expected to be the first pick in the NBA draft.

For Kentucky, Davis is an intimidating tone-setter, with a wingspan of 7-4.

If it looks Saturday like he's never smiled and never will, remember he does have a sense of humor.

In fact, in regards to his shot-blocking record, he says he'd like to thank a teammate, guard Doron Lamb, for allowing his man to repeatedly blow by him.

"He can't play defense for nothin'," Davis says.

The sponge

Think Gorgui Dieng (GOR-ghee Jeng) is capable of learning a little?

The 6-11, 235-pound sophomore came to the U.S. from Senegal with no English skills. A few years later, he conducts interview after interview in what is his fifth language.

Basketball has become like just another language, something best learned by immersion.

And, maybe, by being coached by Rick Pitino.

A master motivator and teacher, Pitino has used all sorts of methods to improve Dieng's basketball IQ. One of them was showing him a video of Baltimore Ravens mad-man linebacker Ray Lewis. It wasn't a football video. It was just Lewis talking about focus, drive, intensity.

That is Dieng's greatest asset as a shot-blocker: high intensity. He plays the game hard, as if each play could decide the outcome, and he tends to produce volleyball-spikes blocks or launched-into-the-stands blocks.

"He likes to block them out of bounds," Davis says. "I've seen him put them in the 10th row."

He has 124 blocks on the season and blocked seven against Michigan State in the Sweet 16.

And he's been a coach's dream. His goals are to soak up as much as he can from this wise, little man and then make some of the crazy money they hand out in the NBA and then spread as much of it as he can to the poor people in Senegal.

The late bloomer

Jeff Withey a major factor in the Final Four?

This did not seem like a realistic concept a year ago, when Withey was finishing his second season near the end of the Kansas bench.

In his first two seasons as a Jayhawk, Withey, a 7-0, 235-pound junior from San Diego, averaged 3.0 minutes and 6.2 minutes, with a total of 25 blocked shots.

Heck, he might end up with 25 blocks in this tournament.

Withey simply had to wait his turn behind other Kansas big men. When he got his chance this season, he was ready. And when he blocked four shots in each of the Jayhawks' first two games, one of them against Kentucky, he was off and running toward a school-record total of 129.

Withey, as a youth, was more into volleyball than basketball. He says that helped him with his timing and with his ability to get off the floor quickly.

"Shot-blocking requires a fair bit of timing, and that came to me pretty naturally," he says.

Withey is not a prolific scorer. His defense, he says, is his biggest contribution to this team.

"Shot-blocking is huge for me," he says. "That's how I see myself, as a rim-protector."

His teammates have gotten used to seeing him that way, too.

Even if it took a while.

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