Luke Adams

INDIANAPOLIS — Freshman center Jeff Withey didn't make the trip here, but everything about his young college basketball career is permeating Lucas Oil Stadium.

His old teammates at Arizona are here, preparing for a Midwest Region semifinal game against Louisville, the team Withey originally committed to as a junior at San Diego's Horizon High School.

His new teammates at Kansas are also here, preparing to face Michigan State in the other Midwest Region semifinal tonight.

Although Withey won't be on the bench to watch it happen, sitting out under NCAA rules after transferring to Kansas from Arizona in December, he may be able to take a small bit of credit.

Since arriving at Kansas after Christmas, Withey has matched up in practice with center Cole Aldrich, with Withey's wiry, 6-foot-10-inch, 225-pound frame testing the starter's physical — and mental — capabilities.

"It's helped a lot," said Aldrich, a 6-11, 245-pound sophomore. "I'm not quite used to having another seven-footer right there, to really kind of make you think twice, that I might not get my shot, he might do this. You've gotta pump fake him every once in a while."

Kansas coach Bill Self said Withey has helped a lot, even though he'll need more strength to be fully effective for the Jayhawks in the future.

"Jeff's doing fine," Self said. "He's learning how to play hard and on every possession. I think the year of redshirting will do him wonders of good. He's a very talented big guy. But I think his strength can get a little bit better."

While Withey waits and prepares for the chance to help, the Jayhawks continue their surprising run at defending their national championship. Entering the season, Kansas returned no starters, with only guard Sherron Collins and Aldrich returning from the playing rotation, and wasn't even assured of making the NCAA tournament, much less winning it.

"I have never thought that we were trying to defend anything this year," Self said. "Really, Sherron and Cole played a role in a couple of games … so this has been a whole fresh outlook and a new thought process, and we hadn't even thought about that."

But the fact that Kansas has improved dramatically since it lost 84-67 at Arizona on Dec. 23, and since it lost at Michigan State 75-62 on Jan. 10, has made the subject relevant.

The Jayhawks went 14-2 in conference play to win the Big 12, earning Self several national Coach of the Year awards already, and giving the Jayhawks reason to believe they can defeat Michigan State this time around.

"I think we're more mature as a team," guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "When we played Michigan State earlier in the season, it was our second away game for the season. … We've been through a bunch of battles since then. I feel we're going to handle the situation a little bit better this time."

They've also had Aldrich practicing daily against Withey, possibly making a long center play even longer. Aldrich is averaging 14.8 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks a game.

"There's 7-footers who are 7feet, and there's 7-footers who seem 9feet," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. Aldrich is "one of those 7-footers who seems 9feet to me."