Joel Embiid’s Prolonged Absence Leaves Kansas At A Crossroads

Posted by Kory Carpenter & Taylor Erickson on March 11th, 2014

Unless you live under a rock, chances are you’ve heard that Kansas center Joel Embiid will miss this weekend’s Big 12 tournament, and his participation in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament at this point is considered to be a “long shot,” according to head coach Bill Self. While it remains a possibility that Embiid could be available for the later rounds of the NCAA tournament if Kansas advances, for the time being, this news certainly rocks the college basketball landscape and has serious implications for the Jayhawks’ chances of winning it all in early April. Big 12 microsite writers Taylor Erickson and Kory Carpenter break down the challenges that Embiid’s updated prognosis brings to Kansas’ national title aspirations:

TE: The silver lining for Bill Self and company lies in the fact that Embiid isn’t the only NBA lottery pick roaming the sidewalks in Lawrence this season. There’s another ridiculously talented athlete wearing a Kansas jersey that has the ability to completely take over a college basketball game. It’s your move, Andrew Wiggins.

Can Andrew Wiggins put Kansas on his back while Joel Embiid is out with a back injury? (KUSports.com)

Can Andrew Wiggins carry the load while Joel Embiid is out with a back injury? (KUSports.com)

You all know the story by now. Wiggins came to Kansas as one of the most heralded recruits of all time. He had that “best since” clause attached to his name. For the most part, there’s been no shortage of college basketball fans and media alike that would tell you that Wiggins has underachieved this year. But the beauty of college basketball is that heroes in this sport are made in March, and for Andrew Wiggins, the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on college basketball is still right out in front of him, waiting to be capitalized on. We’ve seen it in stretches, and his 41-point outburst at West Virginia, albeit in a loss, was the most recent example of how dominant the 6’8″ guard from Canada can be. In a year where there’s clearly no bulletproof team in the nation, is it really that far-fetched to believe Wiggins could lead Kansas on a Kemba Walker-like run?

Wiggins has a team around him sans Joel Embiid who are plenty capable of being productive at the college basketball level, but for this team to reach their goals of winning a national championship, they have to have a truly dominant effort by Wiggins, night in and night out. There can no longer be stretches during a game where you don’t know if Wiggins is on the floor or on the bench. He can no longer be complacent for periods of the game in hopes that one of his teammates will carry the load. It can’t take Kansas being down 20 points to be the type of trigger that kicks Wiggins’ game into gear. Wiggins is the kind of athlete that just isn’t commonly found in college basketball, and he possesses the type of skill set that very few other teams have the luxury of knowing, and when he decides he’s going to get to the rim, there’s not much you can do to stop him.

Truth be told, this Embiid news comes as a real gut punch to the Kansas Jayhawks. Sure, they’ve struggled at times this season, but with Embiid and Wiggins in the lineup, there wasn’t another team in America with the upside of Self’s squad. Now is the perfect opportunity for Wiggins to make a statement, and cement his place in college basketball. A perfect chance to live up to the hype, and prove the attention and the magazine covers were justifiable. It’s his time to leave us in awe. Can it be done?

Fellow Big 12 Microsite writer Kory Carpenter discusses the other questions raised by Embiid’s injury update:

1. How does Embiid’s absence affect the Jayhawks’ NCAA Tournament seeding?

Bill Self has personal experience with the selection committee using a player’s injury to knock a team down a seed line. In 2000, Cincinnati star Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Atlantic-10 tournament and missed the rest of the season. The Bearcats dropped from the #1 team in the AP Poll that week to a #2 seed after losing Martin. A week later, they lost to #7 seed Tulsa -coached by Self- in the Round of 32. So whereas the Jayhawks were recently preparing for the Big 12 tournament and a chance at a one-seed, they could now be playing just to stay alive as a two-seed. After losing their only test without Embiid on Saturday (a 92-86 loss at West Virginia) another loss so soon could be trouble come selection Sunday.

2. How does this change postseason expectations?

Self said in his statement Monday night that expectations won’t change and the team will rally around Embiid. And inside Allen Fieldhouse, he might be right. But without Embiid, the Jayhawks won’t be a lock to survive the first weekend. In a best-case scenario, they are probably a two-seed at the moment, making their Round of 32 game against a #7 or #10 seed far from a lock. If you watched Saturday’s game against West Virginia, you saw the defense get torched for 92 points. Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe have always been defensive liabilities, but Embiid’s shot-blocking ability was able to erase mistakes by teammates. When that didn’t happen on Saturday, it wasn’t pretty. As far as fan expectations go, this team had plenty of question marks (guard play, mostly) before Embiid’s injury. But there was a reason they were one of the two or three favorites in Las Vegas to win the NCAA Tournament: A pair of top-five picks and Bill Self will do that. But without Embiid for the first weekend and possibly for the entirety of the tournament, expecting the Jayhawks to survive a Sweet 16 game against a Duke, Syracuse, or Virginia might be asking too much.

3. How will this change how Kansas plays?

If Self is confident he will be no worse than a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, don’t expect anything different this weekend in Kansas City. He won’t reveal any different defenses in his arsenal unless he has to do so. But when it’s lose-or-go-home next weekend, we could see a completely different Kansas team than what we’ve grown accustomed to this season. Perry Ellis is more of a face-up forward and Tarik Black (Embiid’s likely replacement in the starting lineup) is prone to early fouls. But there is still Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden on the perimeter. If I were Self, I would think hard about going with smaller lineups, pressing to speed up the game, and throwing any kind of “junk” defense I currently have in my back pocket. In 2012, Self threw a Triangle-and-2 at North Carolina in the second half of their Elite Eight matchup and Roy Williams literally didn’t know it until after the game. Hiding Ellis and Tharpe in the zone with Wiggins and Selden in man-to-man could steal the Jayhawks a game if needed. Whatever Self decides to do, don’t expect the same game plan from the first 31 games. There is too much time for Self not to come up with something to combat Embiid’s absence.

Taylor Erickson (54 Posts)

Taylor Erickson is a Big 12 contributor for RTC. You can follow him on Twitter @tc_erickson.


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