LAWRENCE, Kan. – What a weird week for Philip Jurick.
Wednesday's matchup with Iowa State all but relegated Oklahoma State's big man to spectator status, with the Cyclones' perimeter-built offense leaving him no one to guard and limiting him to six minutes of action.
Now three days later, Saturday's clash with No. 2-ranked Kansas – and more precisely center Jeff Withey – places Jurick in a focused spotlight, as well as at the heart of OSU's upset hopes.
“Yeah, we're definitely going to need him Saturday; that's why I didn't play him (Wednesday night), so I could get him some extra rest,” Cowboys coach Travis Ford said jokingly.
“He knew that was going to be a tough one, but any extra energy we can get from Philip on Saturday would be great.”
Tip time is 3 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse.
Withey's interior dominance has been a major factor in the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks seizing of the Big 12 race, which shows KU cruising out front at 7-0, 19-1 overall.
The 7-footer averages 13.1 points, a team-high 8.3 rebounds and school-record-pace 4.3 blocked shots per game, well ahead of his record mark of 3.6 a year ago. While the fifth-year senior's offensive game has improved dramatically over time, it's his presence in the paint on the defensive end that alters opponent's shots and psyches and game plans.
“Teams are really trying to attack us outside the paint,” said KU coach Bill Self. “Which, that's OK.”
Even so, Withey's 86 blocks this season are more than six Big 12 teams (the Cowboys aren't one of them).
“He's talented, considered one of the best big men in our league,” Jurick said. “You've got to stay physical with him. You can't get down on yourself if he scores a couple of baskets. You just have to match his intensity and stay after him.”
Jurick can match more than Withey's intensity. As one of the league's few traditional-styled centers, Jurick may not match Withey's offensive prowess, but he's given the Cowboys solid defense and rebounding.
OSU sizes up well in the other key matchups and in Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash has star power to offset KU's Ben McLemore, Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson. But the Cowboys can't get clobbered inside, making it important for Jurick to somewhat contain Withey.
A former redshirt, Withey was a bit player through his sophomore season, before a major breakout campaign a year ago. Now he's one of the nation's top players.
ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla has Withey at No. 6 on his “Impact 25” player rankings. And he's pegged as a first-round pick on many NBA Draft charts.
When Jurick missed last year's game in Lawrence with a bum ankle, Withey went for a career-high 20 rebounds in the Jayhawks' 81-66 romp. When the teams played in Stillwater, Jurick was mostly assigned to Thomas Robinson.
“Jeff Withey changes the game like probably no other player in the country on the defensive end,” Ford said. “Just a difference maker, really protects the rim. They've got a very good defensive team, but he makes them great.
“And we'd like Phil Jurick to do the same type of thing for our team.”
For the most part, Jurick has been just that, protecting the middle for a Cowboys squad that ranks among the Big 12's top four in every major defensive category. And he'll have to be that again Saturday if OSU is to overcome a trend of struggle on the road that only multiplies when the Jayhawks are factored in.
KU is 58-10 against the Cowboys at home, so the program's problems in The Phog go way back. But there's more, like the Jayhawks' current 33-game home winning streak and a 102-1 mark in their last 103 games overall inside Allen Fieldhouse.
Contrast OSU's 16-game losing streak at The Phog and its one win in the last 22 conference road games and the math wouldn't seem to add up for the Cowboys.
Unless they can manage the middle.
“That matchup inside, I'm looking forward to it,” Jurick said. “I know I'm going to play a big role trying to contain him. It's not just the one-on-one, we're going to Kansas and trying to get a road win, which is important. But I am looking forward to it.”
Oklahoma State at No. 2 Kansas
* When: 3 p.m., Saturday
* Where: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, Kan.
* Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1
* TV: Big 12 Network (Cox 11)
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
* The game will feature a matchup of the two major figures in the Big 12 Freshman of the Year race: OSU's Marcus Smart and KU's Ben McLemore.
* The Cowboys haven't won in Lawrence since 1989.
* One key to the Jayhawks success: veteran play. They start four seniors, including three fifth-year seniors.