LAWRENCE — Jeff Withey admitted that he sleepwalked through most of Kansas’ two exhibition games.
The 7-footer, a key component of last year’s national runners-up, has been trying to adapt to life without Thomas Robinson, the All-America forward who left early for the NBA draft. Withey’s the guy who’s getting the double teams now, and the guy all eyes will be on in the paint.
He finally woke up Friday night, and gave everybody watching something to see.
The senior finished with 17 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots, and the seventh-ranked Jayhawks pulled away late to beat Southeast Missouri State 74-55 in their season opener.
“I still have a lot of things to work on,” Withey said, “but I’m definitely getting more confident, and starting to feel comfortable with all the new guys.”
Yes, the new guys.
There’s a bunch of them this season.
And the Jayhawks will have to rely heavily on them, too.
Ben McLemore had nine points, 12 rebounds and five assists in his long-awaited debut, and Perry Ellis finished with 15 points and eight boards as the freshman starters helped the Jayhawks win their 40th straight season opener at Allen Fieldhouse.
“It was great getting my first game under the belt,” Ellis said. “Just listening to the seniors, it really helped a lot, motivating me day-in and day-out.”
This one certainly wasn’t easy.
The Redhawks managed to close within six midway through the second half, but Kansas slowly extended the lead behind its slew of freshmen to put the game away.
“We played hard,” Redhawks coach Dickey Nutt said. “In the first half we really pressed a lot, we were nervous, we were star-struck. I think in the second half we slowed down a bit.”
Nick Niemczyk finished with 14 points for the Redhawks, who have lost seven straight season openers, all on the road, and remain winless in six tries against Big 12 schools.
Kansas returns three starters from last year’s national runners-up, including the 7-foot Withey, a preseason honorable-mention All-America selection. But the two guys they lost left gaping holes: Big 12 player of the year Robinson, who left early for the NBA draft, and Tyshawn Taylor, a senior guard who also went in the draft.
In their place are a bunch of newcomers — nine in all — including McLemore and Jamari Traylor, who were forced to redshirt last season after the NCAA ruled them partial qualifiers.
The Jayhawks certainly showed some growing pains in their only tune-up before facing No. 14 Michigan State next week. They turned it over 13 times and finished 2 for 21 from beyond the 3-point arc, with top sharp-shooter Elijah Johnson missing all four of his attempts.
“The first half we played good, we just didn’t make any shots,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You defend, you rebound, you don’t turn it over, you get decent looks — we were up 15 in the first half and based on how they shot it and we defended, we could have easily been up 25.”
The Jayhawks’ scored the game’s first 11 points, but Naadir Tharpe’s 3-pointer from the wing with 16 minutes left before halftime was the last 3 that they’d hit until the closing minutes.
That’s the biggest reason Southeast Missouri State managed to hang around.
The Redhawks still trailed 36-19 with about 18 minutes remaining, but Nino Johnson’s three-point play got their rally started. Lucas Nutt and Marland Smith added a pair of free throws, and after McLemore soared for a follow-up dunk, Johnson and Niemczyk added two more baskets.
The 11-2 surge got Southeast Missouri State within 38-30.
The Redhawks, picked to finish second in the Ohio Valley Conference, kept taking advantage of the Jayhawks’ ineptitude on offense, whittling the lead to 43-37 with 12 minutes left.
“We gave them some open looks but tonight we just got lucky,” Niemczyk said.
The luck finally ran out with about 12 minutes to play.
Withey got to the line for a pair of free throws, McLemore added a slashing layup, and Travis Releford got into the act with two free throws. By the time Ellis converted a three-point play with just under 8 minutes to go, the Jayhawks had extended the lead back to 54-41.
“Everybody has days when the ball doesn’t fall,” Tharpe said. “We’re going to make those shots as the season goes on, as long as we’re confident enough to keep shooting them.”
Southeast Missouri State 55
SE MISSOURI ST. (0-1)
Johnson 4-7 3-3 12, Stone 3-15 1-2 8, Jones 2-9 5-8 9, Nutt 1-4 2-3 4, Smith 1-10 2-2 4, Niemczyk 5-14 2-2 14, Tolbert 1-1 0-0 2, Ferguson 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 18-62 15-20 55.
Ellis 5-9 5-5 15, Withey 5-12 7-10 17, Johnson 1-5 2-2 4, McLemore 3-8 3-3 9, Releford 3-11 3-3 9, Tharpe 4-11 1-1 10, Adams 0-0 2-2 2, White III 1-2 0-0 3, Wesley 0-0 0-0 0, Garrett 0-0 0-0 0, Traylor 2-4 1-2 5. Totals 24-62 24-28 74.
Halftime — Kansas 32-17. Three-point goals — SE Missouri St. 4-16 (Niemczyk 2-6, Johnson 1-1, Stone 1-3, Jones 0-1, Smith 0-5), Kansas 2-21 (White III 1-2, Tharpe 1-6, Ellis 0-1, McLemore 0-3, Johnson 0-4, Releford 0-5). Rebounds — SE Missouri St. 37 (Johnson 9), Kansas 49 (McLemore, Withey 12). Assists — SE Missouri St. 6 (Nutt 3), Kansas 12 (McLemore 5). Total fouls — SE Missouri St. 20, Kansas 18.