Will Defensive Issues Spell Doom for Kansas?Posted by Taylor Erickson on March 19th, 2014
The biggest question surrounding Kansas as it begins the 2014 NCAA Tournament later this week is whether standout center Joel Embiid will be available sometime in the next few weeks, and if so, when his availability might occur. When news about the stress fracture in his lower back came to light early last week, Self indicated that the first weekend of the tournament was a “long shot” but the Jayhawks were hopeful he could return later in the tournament if they were fortunate enough to advance. While we continue to remain in the dark over Embiid’s status, the next biggest question now becomes what can keep Kansas from surviving this weekend’s trip to St. Louis?
If you’ve spent any time at all watching Kansas over the last few weeks without the services of their center from Cameroon, the answer to this question is the stark inability of Kansas to lock down the defensive end of the floor. Even typing that last sentence feels odd, given Self’s track record of defensive excellence throughout his tenure as the head coach in Lawrence. Consider that every year from 2006 to last season, the Jayhawks have finished #3, #1, #1, #9, #9, #11, #3, and #5 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ranking. This season, Kansas currently sits 45th in Pomeroy’s defensive rankings, illustrating just how much this team has struggled on that end of the floor.
When Embiid is in the game, his ability to protect the rim masks the defensive ineptitude from other players like Naadir Tharpe and Perry Ellis. Of all the players in Bill Self’s arsenal, you would inherently think those two would at least be serviceable on defense given their familiarity with his philosophy, but that is not the case. It ultimately comes down to an ability to guard your position, something these two have struggled with throughout their careers. In Kansas’ recent loss against Iowa State last Friday night, it was Jamari Traylor, a reserve forward, who struggled to contain the versatile Georges Niang, who scored just about whenever he wanted in the second half. Self has recognized these defensive struggles in his recent press conferences, and has alluded to the fact that his team’s ability to make teams work for points comes from their energy.
That statement is a little concerning for Jayhawks fans, because is it reasonable to expect a team to flip on the energy switch for six straight games over the next three weeks when they’ve struggled with that problem all season? While some feel that the Jayhawks received a favorable draw in the bottom half of the South Region, Kansas will have an immediate opportunity to prove it can survive without Embiid available. Eastern Kentucky will pose an interesting match-up on Friday afternoon given their ability to shoot the ball from deep, and a New Mexico front line of big man Cameron Bairstow could certainly test the mettle of the Kansas frontcourt. If the Jayhawks want to dream about cutting down the nets in North Texas next month, they’ll need a renewed focus on the defensive end of the floor – with or without the services of Joel Embiid. Whether that can be accomplished or if it’s too late to do so will be worth watching this week in St. Louis.