published Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Joel Embiid the key for Kansas NCAA basketball title hopes

Kansas' Andrew White (3) works under the net against pressure from Wake Forrest's Aaron Rountree, left, and Andre Washington, right, as teammate Joel Embiid (21) assists during an NCAA college basketball game in Paradise Island, Bahamas, on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013.
Kansas' Andrew White (3) works under the net against pressure from Wake Forrest's Aaron Rountree, left, and Andre Washington, right, as teammate Joel Embiid (21) assists during an NCAA college basketball game in Paradise Island, Bahamas, on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

It had been a tough nine days for the Kansas basketball program before Sunday's news that 7-foot freshman center Joel Embiid was flying to Los Angeles on Monday to consult a specialist about his tender lower back.

But road losses at Oklahoma State and West Virginia merely hurt the No. 10 Jayhawks' seeding for the NCAA tournament. The loss of Embiid, even if it's only for the tourney's opening weekend of March 20-23, could KO their dream of a fourth NCAA title.

"It's nothing where he won't be feeling great in four weeks with some rest," coach Bill Self told the Kansas media Sunday evening. "But we don't have four weeks."

No, the Jayhawks have less than two weeks. And given the losses they've suffered against Kansas State, Okie State and West Virginia with Embiid out altogether or limited by the injury, it's questionable just how far Kansas can advance without him.

"Obviously the big fellow makes a big difference in having a chance to win it all," TCU coach Trent Johnson, who has faced the Jayhawks both with and without Embiid on the floor, said during Monday's Big 12 teleconference: "They need to have him in the stretch."

How much do they need him? Consider this single statistic from the regular season: In games in which Embiid played 20 or more minutes for the Jayhawks, opponents shot 41.9 percent from the floor on 2-point attempts. In games he played 20 or fewer minutes, they shot 46.6 percent on 2-pointers.

No wonder Self noted on that same Big 12 teleconference: "This week [at the Big 12 tourney] is important, but it pales in comparison to the importance of what happens after this week. We want him as healthy as possible for the NCAA tournament. We want him as close to 100 percent as possible for that."

This isn't to say Kansas (23-8) is otherwise without talent, beginning with Embiid's more celebrated classmate, Andrew Wiggins, who is averaging 16.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals in what he's already said will be his lone year of collegiate ball before declaring for the NBA draft.

After watching Wiggins erupt for 41 points against his Mountaineers on Saturday, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said in admiration, "I've never seen him play like that. When he makes shots, he's really difficult to defend."

But all the Jayhawks make shots. Kansas is hitting 49.7 percent from the floor and 70.6 percent from the foul line as a team. It out-rebounds opponents by more than seven a game (38.0 to 30.8). And thanks to Embiid's 72 blocks, the Jayhawks have swatted 75 more shots than their opponents this season.

What they haven't done so well is protect the ball or steal the ball. Kansas is committing almost two more turnovers a game than its opponents and stealing it 0.6 time less. As long as Embiid has been near the goal to block or alter shots, that hasn't been a problem.

But at West Virginia, with Embiid in street clothes, it became a big problem, the Mountaineers scoring 92 points and hitting 53 percent of their field goals against a Kansas squad that allowed them only 69 points and 40 percent shooting with Embiid on the floor at Kansas earlier in the season.

"[Embiid] blocks or changes everything in the lane," Huggins noted Monday. "We just shoot so many 3s and so many jump shots: It still affects us, don't get me wrong, but I don't know it affects us as much as people who throw the ball inside."

If the native of Cameroon plays, he could easily be the story of the tournament. Embiid is so unfamiliar with life in America that he has yet to earn a driver's license. Many believe his overall innocence may cause him to play at Kansas at least two seasons, despite his current projection to be the No. 1 overall pick in this summer's NBA draft, should he choose to enter it.

Having played the sport less than four years, Embiid is hitting nearly 69 percent of his free throws and more than 62 percent of his field-goal tries and has dished out 38 assists, including the winner to Wiggins in a last-second victory at Texas Tech.

It's all been enough to cause Texas coach Rick Barnes to proclaim after a 85-54 loss to the Jayhawks in Lawrence last month: "At the beginning of the year, and I probably said it wrong, everyone was talking about the best team in the country, and I said I thought Kansas was the best team in the country. What I should have said was at the end I think they can be the best team in the country."

The Jayhawks definitely can. While playing the nation's toughest schedule, they lost early games to current No. 1 Florida, No. 3 Villanova and No. 8 San Diego State by a total of 14 points. Kansas won its 10th straight Big 12 title this season, and with veteran point guard Naadir Tharpe handing out five assists a game and hitting 83 percent of his free throws it's tough to find the slightest serious flaw in the team -- if Embiid plays.

"I really believe -- and of course I'm biased -- when he's healthy and playing well he has the potential to impact the game on both ends as much as anybody in the country," Self said of his injured star Monday.

The concern for Kansas is how much Embiid can impact its national championship chances if he can't play in the NCAA tourney.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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