Monday, July 1, 2013

Standing tall: A look at the top centers in the Bill Self era

The top centers in the 10-year Bill Self era, as selected by the Journal-World and staffs, are, clockwise from top left: Sasha Kaun, Cole Aldrich, Jeff Withey, Darnell Jackson and Markieff Morris.

The top centers in the 10-year Bill Self era, as selected by the Journal-World and staffs, are, clockwise from top left: Sasha Kaun, Cole Aldrich, Jeff Withey, Darnell Jackson and Markieff Morris.



Journal-World File Photos

The top centers in the 10-year Bill Self era, as selected by the Journal-World and staffs, are, clockwise from top left: Sasha Kaun, Cole Aldrich, Jeff Withey, Darnell Jackson and Markieff Morris.

Because of his larger-than-life status as an icon in both Kansas University basketball and NBA history, former Jayhawk Wilt Chamberlain often is the first and sometimes only center than comes to mind when talking about those who played the position at KU.

While that seems fair given Chamberlain’s incredible career and the fact that he changed the game in so many ways, plenty of quality centers have come through Kansas in the days since Chamberlain left, many in the past 10 years.

For the fifth installment of our summer series, which looks back at the top players and moments of the Bill Self era thus far, we size up the big guys who protected the rim and made life miserable for opposing offenses.

Although the four writers taking part in this series picked the same five guys for the first time this summer — three even went with the same order — they did so for different reasons and from slightly different perspectives.

Here’s a look:

Gary Bedore

1. Jeff Withey: Withey didn’t just block shots, he knocked them into oblivion. It’s amazing the force of a Jeff Withey blocked shot. He was ineffective after arriving as a transfer from Arizona, ultimately turning into the best shot blocker not named Wilt in KU history. Nice guy, too.

2. Cole Aldrich: A somewhat eccentric player, reminded me a little of Greg Ostertag in the personality department (I said “a little”). The player with the missing front tooth also was a human eraser with block after block. His NBA future is somewhat in doubt for some reason, maybe his offensive game.

3. Markieff Morris: The brother of Marcus so far has been a better NBA player than Marcus. Has a nice touch on his jumper for a big guy. Like Marcus, was a bit immature at times in college, but certainly effective if not spectacular.

4. Sasha Kaun: Kaun, like Russell Robinson, could be considered the heart and soul of the 2008 NCAA title team. Sasha truly wanted to win. Love the picture of him on the mural outside the northwest tunnel of the fieldhouse. He’s a winner. It would be nice to see him play in the NBA a few years, but he has too good a contract in his native Russia.

5. Darnell Jackson: The big teddy bear was a vicious force on the court. He came a long way from the unpolished player who arrived as a freshman. He’s overcome a lot of heartbreak in his life to be a good pro player and good man.

Tom Keegan

1. Jeff Withey: Tantamount to a 7-foot stop sign, Withey completely changed the way teams tried to score. His shot-blocking ability consistently demoralized the opposition.

2. Cole Aldrich: His powerful dunks were surpassed only by his intimidating blocked shots. Aldrich worked hard on extending his shooting range, and it paid off.

3. Markieff Morris: Terrific passer, decent shot-blocker, physical defender, strong rebounder. And he had a decent set-shot from three-point range. Caught everything that came his way.

4. Sasha Kaun: Simply would not allow opposing big men to establish position and made them uncomfortable throughout the game. So-so hands and awkward shot kept him from being a scoring force, but he set punishing screens.

5. Darnell Jackson: He ran the floor hard, wasn’t afraid to use his muscles and developed a reliable 15-foot jumper. Didn’t become a starter until his senior year.

Matt Tait

1. Jeff Withey: I’ve always said this about Withey, and I think it’s the main reason I rank him No. 1 here: Cole Aldrich was an incredible shot-blocker and took great pride in rejecting shots, but Withey took great pride in trying to take an opponent’s soul. Not content to simply redirect the ball away from its intended target, Withey so often attacked shots with violence, which kept points off the board and made players think twice about going at him again.

2. Cole Aldrich: His triple-double in the NCAA Tournament against Dayton in 2009 was one of the most impressive and memorable performances in KU basketball history. There was not a whole lot of flash to Aldrich’s game, but there was plenty of substance. As a true freshman, before he became a force and the anchor of the KU defense, Aldrich broke out by thoroughly outplaying UNC forward Tyler Hansbrough in the 2008 Final Four.

3. Markieff Morris: “Kieff” might be the most underrated Jayhawk of all-time. He was not often asked to utilize his complete game in college and, instead, served as a more powerful inside presence. Still, he was a gifted and versatile offensive player and played defense with great passion.

4. Sasha Kaun: Few KU players have looked as if they worked so hard out there on the floor. The Jayhawks never had to question whether Kaun gave everything he had. Good game or bad game, that showed all over his face every time out.

5. Darnell Jackson: One of the few true enforcers that KU has fielded in the past decade, Jackson never shied away from contact and improved as much from his junior to senior season as any player anywhere. Strictly a role player for much of his first three seasons, Jackson became a key member of the 2008 title team and had moments when he looked like the most important player on the floor.

Jesse Newell

1. Cole Aldrich: According to Basketball-Reference’s Win Share statistic, Aldrich’s 2008-09 season was the best by a Jayhawk in Self’s 10 seasons. The year after KU won the title, Aldrich was the biggest reason KU continued its Big 12 title streak, as he made 60 percent of his twos, was a top-25 shot-blocker and a top-100 offensive and defensive rebounder. His lack of success in the pros doesn’t take away from the impact he made for the Jayhawks.

2. Jeff Withey: I’ve never seen a better shot-blocker in college, and Withey’s impact went even deeper than his raw stats. Though he posted top-five block percentages in his last two years, he altered many others and also had a knack for deflecting his rejections to his teammates. Withey developed into a good-but-not-dominant scorer and was a strong-but-not-exceptional rebounder, which puts him just behind Aldrich in these rankings.

3. Darnell Jackson: Because of the talent around him, his 2007-08 season — the ninth-best in the Self era according to the Win Share stat — often gets overlooked. That year, Jackson made 63 percent of his twos, posted top-250 offensive and defensive rebounding numbers and also had the team’s second-best turnover rate.

4. Markieff Morris: He had a good sophomore year before breaking out his junior year. That season, he finished 17th nationally in effective field-goal percentage and in the top 60 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages. As a center, he also blocked five percent of opponents’ twos while making 42 percent of his three-point attempts.

5. Sasha Kaun: A solid four-year contributor, Kaun never became a reliable scorer but still was able to provide plenty of offensive rebounding and blocks, all while keeping his turnovers low.


Tony Bandle 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I vote for Matt Klienmann..c'mon, how many red-headed, seven foot architects do you know!!??


Bewareofthephog Fifety-Five 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Now that articles have been written about all five positions I shall make an all Bill Self team. Because I could not break it to a seven man rotation, I made a nine-man team, with five guards and four bigs.


PG) Sherron Collins (as a senior)

SG) Mario Chalmers (as a junior)

SG) Brandon Rush (as a junior)

PF) Wayne Simien (as a senior)

PF) Thomas Robinson (as a junior)


PG/SG) Tyshawn Taylor (from the second half of his senior year)

SG) Ben McLemore (as a freshman)

PF) Marcus Morris (as a junior)

C) Jeff Withey (as a senior)


DocBean 9 months, 3 weeks ago

If we're talking college players, I thought Marcus was the better player, between him and his brother. He was the guy teams were focused on every night. Now in the pros that has switched, and Markieff was even drafted first, which now looks like a smart move, but Marcus was the better college player.


Michael Luby 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Ok fellas, I always thought Darnell was more of a Pf, I suppose don't understand the difference between Center and PF. Someone please enlighten me.


Gregor Southard 9 months, 3 weeks ago

How about a best "6th Man" ranking? Would be fun since many of them became starters late in their careers.


Ralster Jayhawk 9 months, 3 weeks ago

The funniest (now) paradox is the Twins facial expressions--> Man, those 2 had so many people fooled it is comical...their facial contortions, grimaces, etc..fooled many of their own fans, and a few referees also...But early on, they didnt fool Tom Izzo, and the way MichSt got after them revealed they had alot of work to do--to their everlasting credit they recognized that and sought out Hudy and D.Manning and got busy with work ethic. Self knew they were big softies when they came, and he rode them mercilessly in practice. He called them out in public twice. ("So soft..."). He challenged their manhood, and they responded, even crossing the line a couple of times (& never did again once the Tourney started). You can thank Marcus+Markieff's recognition & work ethic, along with work by Hudy + D.Manning, and finally thank Bill Self for literally instilling the tough mindset that allowed their play to catapult them to lottopicks. Marcus and Markieff are still reaping the benefits of their blossoming at KU. Their faces and tattoos (i guess?) fooled alot of KU fans, but I could see what Bill Self (hates, hates, hates to lose to Izzo) was trying to achieve with the development of the Twins. The only thing that fooled me was Markieff also deciding to leave early (boy we could have used him vs. Kentucky, and Selby too), but then the lotto proved Markieff was correct. Nothing else to say. Good luck to all KU bigs in the pros.


Bewareofthephog Fifety-Five 9 months, 3 weeks ago

  1. Jeff: He blocked the most shots, became the go-to big in our offense as a senior, and was the reason KU led the nation in fg% defense his final year.

  2. Darnell: key piece on a stacked championship team. could do it all. he defended, rebounded, blocked shots, made jumpers, made free-throws, muscled in plenty of layups, etc.

  3. Markieff: best natural scorer of all centers. good shooter and could score in the post.

  4. Cole Aldrich: great rebounder, good shot blocker, but he was no Withey. Had a nice hook, but struggled to score, although he was forced to in the 08-09 season.

  5. Kaun: couldn't score from more than a few feet from the basket, but he played good defense, rebounded well, tried hard, and was very forceful.


Jack Jones 9 months, 3 weeks ago

As I read the LJW writer's picks, and the comments made by all of you with regard to the best centers during the Bill Self reign ~ I am struck by the fact that KU basketball ~ and all of us by association ~ have been so incredibly fortunate to have had such an amazingly talented group of college players play for us ~ not only at the center/post position, but at each and every other position. For some reason, centers stand out for me ~ probably generational in nature; but also for their ability to dominate a game simply because of their size ~ in addition to exceptional talent.

My re collectivity goes back to the era of Clyde Lovellette ('49 - '52), and his beautiful, sweeping hook shot. ~ All-American, 1952 National Championship, MVP of that game, record (at that time) for most points in Final Four, member of Olympic Games Gold Medal team. B.H. Born ('52 - '54) ~ little known (outside of Kansas) HS player from Medicine Lodge, who had the unenviable task of following Lovellette. All American ('53), MVP of National Championship game (yes, in Finals 2nd consecutive year) even though we lost the Championship game to Indiana (69-68). B.H. scored 26 points, had 15 rebounds and 13 blocked shots ~ though unofficial, believed to be KU's first triple double. Member of the Gold Medal World Championships team. Wilt Chamberlain ('55 - '57) ~ 2-time All American ~ unquestionably, by any measure, the greatest basketball player of all time. Never has any player so totally dominated a game (any game) at both ends of the court. First game as freshman, playing against the varsity, (conference favorite to win the league that year) led the freshman to first ever defeat of varsity ~ scored 42 points, had 25 rebounds and 4 blocks. First varsity game, 52 points, 31 rebounds against a very good Minnesota team.
Add to those players all the terrific athletes who have stepped on the Hoch Auditorium/Allen Field House floors.

Thanks for indulging my trip back in the history book of Kansas Jayhawk basketball.


William Blake 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I couldn't decide my list... but I did pick a #1....

I've got Kieff at the top of my list because I think he had the most well-rounded game of any from this group. Definitely when considering "modern basketball" and his ability to nail the 3 with great accuracy. That's such a rare talent in a post big... and can cause big problems for opposing defenses.

And Kieff's game translates best to the NBA. In today's NBA it is hard to start a player at any position who doesn't have big offensive weapons.


Reuben_J_Cogburn 9 months, 3 weeks ago


Hey, did you know that the Kansas City Star is reporting on the recent situation with Harwell, the desparately needed WR transfer from Ohio, but is reporting on past basketball centers two months before football season starts?

In case you didn't know, Harwell and his family hired a sports attorney that will be doing all he can to ensure that Nick plays this fall.

...but by all means, continue talking about how good Cole Aldrich was during his sophomore season.


Kevin Huffman 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I saw Fox Sports had a "Way too early 2014 NBA Draft" and they had Embiid coming out early and being picked like 20th or so.

My hope is that he lasts 3 years with us so that maybe we could land S. Zimmerman and he could play as Embiid's back-up for a season and stay a 2nd year, perhaps? If not 3 years for Embiid, then at least 2 years w/ Zimmerman stepping in.


Virgil_Caine 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I'd pick Withey over any of them, but no Jayhawk has stolen my heart quite like Darnell. The way he dealt with his tragic personal life and the drastic improvements he made throughout his career made us all so proud. He was basically unplayable his first two years, and grew up to be the garbage man/enforcer on the best team we've ever had.


clevelandjayhawker 9 months, 3 weeks ago

How do you leave Moody off the list? or David Padgett?


Jacobpaul81 9 months, 3 weeks ago

It's a tough debate - Self hasn't had many successful TRUE centers - Withey, Aldrich & Kaun. That's it. Jackson and Kief were both Power Forwards forced to guard centers. With only three to pick from - Withey, Aldrich then Kaun. If we're lumping power forwards in - Simeon, Robinson, Withey, Jackson, Aldrich in that order.

As for a Self all time team? There's a reason we won in 08.

I'm sure I'll take shots from some of you but give me Russell at the helm. Best floor general Self's had since Illinois. The only real LEADER he's recruited. 2nd best their, lowest assist to turnover ratio among point guards - best at avoiding the trap - Tenacious court presence. Super Mario @ 2 Rush @ 3 Simeon @ 4 Withey @ 5

Bench Miles @ 1 McLemore @ 2 Marcus Morris @ 3 Robinson @ 4 Jackson @ 4 / 5

With additional spots: Langford Aldrich


Evan Bilyeu 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I find it amazing that Jeff did all this in two years. No one had any hope for him then two years ago he blossomed into this dominate player!


wrwlumpy 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Scouting reports after Jeff's breakout Jr. season let everyone know that he had a fantastic ability to make the Walton like outlet pass. Didn't see it at all last year, and that is because other coach's find it easier to take care of his outlet pass than trying to get a shot off against the footer with incredible self control and anticipation. Let's hope that this years crop of big men make it onto the top 5 list next year, because being better than any of those 5 will be an incredible accomplishment.


yovoy 9 months, 3 weeks ago

HEM, Neither Morris? I guess I understand that when I look at your list again.

Got room for TT off the bench?


Jack Wilson 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Best possible Self lineup (5 perimeter, 4 post) -


1] Mario Chalmers

2] Ben McLemore

3] Brandon Rush

4] Thomas Robinson

5] Jeff Withey

Off the Bench

6] Darrell Arthur

7] Keith Langford

8] Sherron Collins

9] Wayne Simien


Steve Gantz 9 months, 3 weeks ago

The lists show a wealth of talent at the center position on that National Championship team. Cole, DJ, and Kaun were all on that team and contributed, although as some have pointed out, DJ was more of power forward than a center.

I also noticed it's the first of the summer series of the best of .... that there was agreement between all of the writers of who deserved to be on the list.

What's next, best reserves? Best Freshmen? Best 4 year player? I hope the writers keep this thing going to help us bide the time til October.


clevelandjayhawker 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Let us appreciate coach Hudy...just remembering what Kief and Withey use to look like as freshmen.


COHawk10 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I saw the headline and thought "But there have only been 3..." Really, only Sasha, Cole and Jeff were true centers. The others were PFs starting at the 5 maybe. No disrespect whatsoever to D Block and Kief. Great Jayhawks in their own right.


KemDooKU 9 months, 3 weeks ago

How do you leave CJ Giles off this list - ......oh my it's beyond words!


Trifecta 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I really hope Jeff can translate to a better pro and have a better career than cole has so far...


Michael Leiker 9 months, 3 weeks ago

How people continue to overrate Aldrich amazes me. KU played some of its ugliest, slowest basketball in 20 years because of him. Very low ceiling w Aldrich at the 5.


jhox 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I have to agree with Withey number 1. He affected games on the defensive end more than any KU player in my memory (I remember Wilt as a pro, and actually saw him play once with the Lakers, but he played at KU before my birth.) While I loved watching Hinrich, Valentine and Releford defend on the ball, none of them intimidated to the extent Withey did in the lane the past couple of years. As someone pointed out above, he changed the way teams tried to attack us.


Danny Hernandez 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Without Sasha's play in the elite 8 game, we don't defeat Davidson


KULA 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Jeff was definitely Bill's best center. I still lament his first two lost years--wasted years--when he couldn't get into a game. I remember the Iowa St game his freshman year he played about 12 minutes and put up about 11 points. And I thought "why isn't this kid playing?" He ran the floor better than Cole, had a better shooting touch than Cole, was more fluid offensively than Cole, and was a better shot blocker than Cole. And, as I called back then, he'll end up having a better pro career than Cole. The brief flashes of the high/low game with Jeff and Cole looked like a coach's dream come true. So why did he languish on the bench for two years? Actually I think I know the answer--he couldn't put on weight and play Bill Self Muscle Ball. Scot Pollard was definitely on to something when he said Bill finally figured out to let Jeff be Jeff.

And yeah, I don't know what Bedore is talking about. Makes me think he never actually watched Jeff play. He reminds me of one of those network commentators in town for three hours for the game (Musburger, Vitale, ugh-Packer) who gets the team press notes--"Jeff Withey--amazing shot blocker" and just tries to embellish that for the national audience without really knowing the local team like we do. All Jayhawk fans know that the true beauty of a Jeff Withey block was how often it resulted in a Kansas possession. His blocks were more like steals or forced turnovers.

Anyway, good luck to Jeff in Portland. Looking forward to seeing him reunited with TRob.


stm62 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I too disagree with the analysis that Withey blocked shots into oblivion. He was a very heady player and understood just where to place that blocked shot. Aspiring centers could learn a lot from watching Jeff, especially on the defensive end. It was true joy to watch an opposing player dribble into the lane, see Withey, and dribble right back out. INTIMIDATION !!!


jaybate 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Cole Aldrich mystifies me.

I cannot figure out what happened to the force of nature we saw his sophomore season. He became a great center that sophomore season. Some thing sapped him his last season and he has shown only flashes since. His pro career has been a bust. Injury seems to be the only likely explanation. He had the kind of passion Bill Walton had. I keep thinking he will find it again, but he doesn't.

Based on two seasons of 30+ wins, Jeff is the best. Period.

Kieff had the best game for the pros though.

Kaun was the best without knees.

Might have become the best had he had knees the last two years.


jazzhawk 9 months, 3 weeks ago

I agree with the concept of Jeff just demoralizing those who would challenge him in the paint. My interpretation (having no official stats, though that would be great to have) is based on how many times he would block a shot, they would go back up and he would block it again, sometimes three times. You could visibly see how his multiple blocks on one possession would just deflate the opponents. Man, that was a thing of beauty!!


JayHawkFanToo 9 months, 3 weeks ago

"Withey didn’t just block shots, he knocked them into oblivion."

I believe Withey was the exact opposite. Although forceful, his block were well controlled and more often than not ended up in the hands of a teammate; that was the best part of his blocks.


Lance Hobson 9 months, 3 weeks ago

Cole would be higher on these lists if we could have figured out Northern Iowa.


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