KU exit interview: Another championship season, but April glory waylaid by JoJo’s absence
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — THE EXIT INTERVIEW: KANSAS (25-10, 14-4 Big 12)
What went right: Another year, another banner. The Jayhawks inserted five brand-new starters — although Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe were serious contributors off the bench the year before — and kept the same high standard: a 10th straight Big 12 title, tying UNLV (Big West, 1983-92) and UConn (Yankee, 1951-60) for consecutive crowns in the modern era. KU’s conference dominance now trails only Gonzaga’s 11 straight West Coast Conference titles (2001-11) and UCLA’s 13 straight (1967-79) in the Pac-8/Pac-10 among major Division I powers.
While Canadian wing Andrew Wiggins (17.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) wasn’t the next Wilt Chamberlain — an absurd parallel to begin with — the 6-foot-8 swingman broke Ben McLemore’s freshman scoring record (597 points) and was named the Big 12’s Freshman of the Year. Off-guard Wayne Selden (9.7 ppg), another first-year import, showed flashes of dominance and some legendary hustle plays; sophomore power forward Perry Ellis (13.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg) took his game to the next level as a full-time starter; and the combination off the bench of 6-8 Jamari Traylor (4.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and 6-9 Tarik Black (5.5 ppg, 3.9 rpg) allowed KU to impose its will through the middle sections of each half.
But the biggest find of the season — literally and figuratively — was freshman center Joel Embiid (11.2 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.6 bpg), a 7-footer from Cameroon who combined the defensive instincts of a Dikembe Mutombo with the offensive repertoire of a young Hakeem Olajuwon. In the summer and fall, Coach Bill Self had talked up Jeff Withey’s replacement as one of the best first-year talents he’d ever worked with, and the man wasn’t kidding: The son of a handball player, Embiid, who’d been playing basketball for only three years prior to this one, combined the footwork of a soccer midfielder with the timing of a middle blocker in volleyball. From mid-December through Valentine’s Day, Embiid’s rapid emergence became the talk of the college basketball world, escalating him from a relative unknown to a potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick — and not in 2015. Now.
What went wrong: Short answer? Embiid’s aching back.
An injury that stemmed at least since JoJo’s senior season at The Rock school in Gainesville, Fla., cropped up again in a win at TCU on Jan. 25, forcing the young post star to sit out the rematch with the Horned Frogs on Feb. 15, and then was further aggravated during an awkward fall at Oklahoma State on March 1. Embiid tried to play through serious pain at the end of that game but clearly wasn’t the same and was shelved for the rest of the month after a stress fracture in his lower back was revealed. Once KU lost its rim protector, an already-inconsistent defense was further exposed: From March 5-23, minus big No. 21, the Jayhawks went 3-3 and allowed an average of 76.4 points away from the friendly confines of Allen Fieldhouse, including 94 to Iowa State at the Big 12 tourney in Kansas City and 92 to West Virginia in Morgantown.
Without Embiid, KU was going to need Wiggins to grow up in an awful hurry — and the kid didn’t quite make it. There were just six games all season in which Wiggins failed to reach double figures in scoring. Unfortunately, one of those came in the NCAA tourney, and (no shock) it turned out to be his last tilt, too: four points on a 1-for-6 shooting day in a 60-57 loss to Stanford in the tournament’s third round. While no one doubts the Canadian’s natural gifts, some of Self’s peers have wondered how well the teen really fit within the coach’s system and Self’s near-constant pleas for aggression and toughness; hoops analyst Greg Anthony was actually quite critical of the KU coach during a radio interview earlier this week after watching the Jayhawks firsthand in St. Louis.
As talented as the Baby Jays were, up and down the roster, they probably were going to go only as far in the postseason as junior point guard Naadir Tharpe could take them. Over the season’s final five games, he averaged just 4.4 points and 2.2 turnovers while shooting 25 percent from the floor and 11.1 percent from beyond the arc (1 for 9); moreover, the fraying confidence Self had shown in his quarterback on the floor for much of the year seemed to wither away completely.
High point: An 85-54 win at home on Feb. 22 was a boon on two fronts: One, it just about mathematically wrapped up the Big 12 regular-season title, and in emphatic fashion over a Longhorns team that was in second place at the time; and two, it served as sweet payback for an 81-69 setback in Austin three weeks earlier. It was KU’s third win in a row, and fifth win in six tries, setting up a (somewhat muted) Big Monday celebration and mathematical clinching at the Phog against Oklahoma.
Low point: March 1, the double whammy of nadirs. First, Embiid re-injured that aching back, a fracture that would effectively ruin the rest of Self’s month. Second, that setback helped Oklahoma State — and KU Public Enemy No. 1 Marcus Smart — rally to a 72-65 victory over the Jayhawks, a victory Smart punctuated by calling out Self on national television.
Key pieces expected back: Ellis, Selden, Tharpe (8.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg), Traylor, G Frank Mason (5.5 ppg, 2.1 apg), G Brannen Greene (2.4 ppg, 0.4 apg), G Conner Frankamp (2.5 ppg, 0.6 apg), F Landen Lucas (1.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg).
Who’s out the door (or expected to be): Wiggins, Embiid, Black, F Justin Wesley (0.6 rpg), G Niko Roberts (0.5 ppg).
Things to work on: Prep sensation Cliff Alexander, a 6-9 leaper out of Chicago, is expected to pick up some of Wiggins’ scoring load; 6-7 wing Kelly Oubre out of Richmond, Texas, likely will be asked to contribute right away on the wing, especially if Selden also bolts for the pros. Another star high schooler out of Texas, 7-footer Myles Turner, remains undecided, but has KU on his short list and is monitoring the Embiid situation closely. JoJo has said he wants to stay; his heart wants to stay. But his head — and his advisers — likely will tell him to jump to the NBA while the money and interest are at a fever pitch.
But, regardless, none of the above will matter come March if a definitive answer at the point can’t be found. Whether it’s Tharpe, Mason, Frankamp or someone we haven’t even seen yet, the backcourt mojo is what will make the difference between another "good" Big 12 championship season and a truly special one.
Season grade: B. Five new starters, a complete reset and another Big 12 title is nothing to sneeze at. But the weaknesses exposed in November and December — struggles against zone defenses, leadership and poise — came back to bite the Jayhawks in the Big Dance. The Jayhawks tackled arguably the toughest pre-conference schedule in recent memory, something Self hoped would toughen up his young team, in the long run, for the postseason to come. Because of Embiid’s injury problems, we’ll never know if that strategy would have paid off. We’ll never know for sure what might’ve happened if JoJo had the chance to play in Bracketville, but you’d have to feel almost certain KU would’ve made it out of the first weekend of the Dance and, perhaps, even reached the regional final. At worst.
Forecast for 2014-15: Sunny. This ship isn’t on autopilot, per se, but it’s pretty darn close — in a good way. Under the current regime, mark the Jayhawks down for 24-plus wins and an 11th straight Big 12 crown, same as it ever was, regardless of who’s going and who’s coming in the months to come. But the same issue that dogged the Jayhawks a year ago at this time is biting Self on the backside again: How far KU goes in March — or even April — will depend on who’s handling the rock. And how well. Period.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.