KU won’t be dancing for very long in March if Joel Embiid can’t play
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Get a second opinion. And a third. The more MRIs, the merrier.
Because without Joel Embiid at 100 percent, or even 80, Kansas’ stay in Bracketville might be short and sweet.
Accent on the short.
If Monday night’s news wasn’t the worst-case scenario for Kansas fans, it was pretty darn close: Embiid, the Jayhawks’ preternaturally gifted 7-footer, had the prognosis of a stress fracture in his aching back confirmed in Los Angeles. The injury knocks the freshman center out of action for the Big 12 Conference tournament and — and this is the kidney punch — through at least the second and third rounds of the NCAA tourney the very next weekend.
"We feel like (the first weekend of the NCAA tourney) is a long shot," coach Bill Self said via statement Monday night. "But the doctors are hopeful that if Joel works hard in rehab and progresses that it is possible that he could play in the later rounds of the NCAA tournament if our team is fortunate enough to advance."
The native of Cameroon aggravated an earlier back injury on March 1 at Oklahoma State when he landed hard along the Gallagher-Iba Arena baseline — a back injury that could date as far back as his final season of high school.
Self held Embiid out all of last week, encompassing the Jayhawks’ last two regular-season games, as a precautionary measure. KU rolled in its home finale last Wednesday against Texas Tech but struggled Saturday at West Virginia, falling 92-86 in Morgantown.
Self earlier in the day had intimated that, depending on Monday’s finding, Embiid was likely to sit out this week’s Big 12 tournament at Sprint Center in Kansas City. The Jayhawks (23-8, 14-4 Big 12) are the 1 seed and will face Oklahoma State or Texas Tech in Thursday afternoon’s second quarterfinal.
But Monday night’s announcement affirms that Embiid’s back issues seem more serious than Self — or the Jayhawks’ inner circle — let on earlier this month. There’s a medical history in play, too: The center’s high school coach, Justin Harden from The Rock school in Gainesville, Fla., told FOXSportsKansasCity.com last week that the freshman had back pain flare up at the end of the 2012-13 season as well, most likely due to of a lack of core strength on such a tall frame.
Harden said doctors told him last spring the discomfort was likely due to a lack of strength training more than any genetic problem. Embiid has been playing basketball, after all, for only about four years, while training and developing muscle memory specific to hoops — and physical contact — for less time than that.
Regardless, it’s exactly the wrong sort of red flag at exactly the wrong time of year. The son of a professional handball player, Embiid has the skills, speed and agility of a 6-7 power forward in a 7-footer’s body, the timing of a middle blocker in volleyball and the footwork and agility of a soccer player.
Both DraftExpress.com and NBADraft.net project the KU big man as the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA Draft — if Embiid, indeed, elects to come out — with the kind of ceiling maybe only JoJo himself could touch.
"He’s tough," Kansas State assistant coach Chris Lowery told FOXSportsKansasCity.com earlier this season. "Because you have to double-team him. You have to. It’s not just us. It’s every (team) they play — you have to double-team him and make him pass it.
"The thing about it is now he’s worked on his footwork … now all of a sudden, he’s passing out of double-teams and now he’s hitting face-up jumpers. This guy, within three weeks, (had) made himself into possibly one of the most polished big guys ever to come out of college."
Which swings us back to Bracketville. No 15 or 16 seed has anything like Embiid, or anything that can quite match up with him, one on one. Few 7, 8, 9 or 10 seeds do, either. The Jayhawks’ journey will ultimately go as far as their backcourt can carry it, but Big No. 21 will, if he can play, be one of the standout players of the 2014 NCAA tournament, as well as perhaps — literally and figuratively — the bracket’s biggest X factor.
As Lowery pointed out, JoJo requires a double-team, or post help, which in turn frees up other KU bigs, and KU wings such as Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden, for better looks. The Jayhawks are deep with powerful post options in 6-8 Perry Ellis, 6-8 Jamari Traylor, 6-9 Tarik Black and 6-10 freshman Landen Lucas — but none commands the singular attention in the paint that Embiid does, just by his length and presence.
Black, a senior transfer from Memphis who started the last two games in Embiid’s absence, can be a force on both ends of the floor — as the Memphis native showed with 19 points and six boards against Tech — if he can stay away from foul trouble. At West Virginia this past weekend, Black picked up two quick fouls in the first half and was largely a non-factor for the rest of the afternoon.
KU can’t have a non-factor in the post to keep dancing.
"Hand-eye coordination and footwork and the basketball (IQ) stuff that you have, as well as having natural physical tools," Lowery said of Embiid. "Those are the things that really make him special right now."
He makes Kansas special, too. JoJo is the biggest, baddest tire on Self’s March rig. And, at the moment, the Jayhawks don’t have anything close to a spare.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.