When freshman center Joel Embiid tweaked his back in the final stages of Kansas' loss March 1 to Oklahoma State, the Jayhawks' Final Four hopes took a massive blow.
After Bill Self's team lost its regular-season finale in Morgantown to a West Virginia team that is desperately searching for a berth in the NCAA tournament, that concern only escalated.
While the main headline about the loss by the eighth-ranked team in the country will be the 41 points of Kansas' other superb freshman, Andrew Wiggins, it should be that the absence of Embiid hurt the team.
Embiid, who averages 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, makes the Jayhawks a complete team because he gives them a paint presence that Perry Ellis and Tarik Black cannot provide.
Ellis and Black are solid players in their own right, but the duo does not possess the height and the shot-affecting defense of Embiid.
In Saturday's loss to the Mountaineers, Ellis and Black combined for just nine rebounds, four less than the total recorded by West Virginia's Devin Williams. Kansas was also out-rebounded 37-31 by the Mountaineers as a team.
Also, this is a pretty sobering reminder for KU fans about how important Joel Embiid's presence inside is for the Jayhawks' D.— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) March 8, 2014
Those two stats should scare the hell out of Kansas fans.
No matter what anyone says about Wiggins or any of the other playmakers at the guard position, Embiid is the Jayhawks' most valuable player. He has proved that in game after game this season as he continues to develop his raw talent and gains hype from the next level.
If Kansas cannot replace Embiid's production levels against West Virginia in a game it should have won handily, regardless of West Virginia's situation, what makes you think it can win against a better team?
The immediate concern for the Jayhawks comes in the form of the Big 12 tournament, where they will most likely face off against Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals. And there is still plenty of uncertainty over Embiid's status.
Self said, via CBS Sports' Gary Parrish, "We don't really know what his availability will be this week.
"The big thing is having him for the following week [in the NCAA Tournament]. We'll play it by ear ... [But] we do not anticipate not having him next week."
If Self and co. can get past the Cowboys, with or without Embiid, they could be forced to deal with Iowa State.
Iowa State has a dominant paint player in Melvin Ejim, the conference's player of the year, who could easily exploit the weakness inside and hand the Cyclones one more win against a ranked opponent.
When the Big Dance rolls around, Self and co. will face an even bigger load of adversity if Embiid fails to get back in playing shape.
Self needs a complete team with Embiid at full strength to even think about being able to beat teams like Florida and Louisville, which have two of the most dominant paint players in the nation in Patric Young and Montrezl Harrell.
Still believe Kansas will have the highest ceiling out of any team in the NCAA Tournaments. But Jayhawks can't reach Dallas w-o Joel Embiid.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 8, 2014
Players like Young and Harrell will be scattered across the four regions on Selection Sunday, and the Jayhawks are bound to run into one unexpected team that can end their national championship dream early.
If Kansas does run into a team like that early on, we could be talking about a season that could have been great instead of one that was great when we reflect on the 2013-14 edition of the Jayhawks.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.