The sky has resumed falling in Kansas, where concerns about Joel Embiid’s injured back have had Jayhawks fans in a flutter all week.
Bill Self had tried to calm the masses with his proclamation to ESPN's Jeff Goodman that he is “100 percent confident” Embiid will return for the Big Dance, but now the actual medical professionals have weighed in.
As Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde reported, there are no guarantees when, or even if, the freshman center will return:
Joel Embiid stress fracture confirmed by California specialist, per KU release. Out indefinitely. That's depressing.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) March 11, 2014
With their interior anchor no longer a sure thing for the postseason, the Jayhawks now have multiple problems to overcome.
First, they need to win the Big 12 tournament, in which it seems prohibitively likely they’ll be without Embiid for the duration. Despite its perennial dominance, KU has had its issues in this tourney—two losses in the last five seasons, as opposed to nine straight regular-season titles—and really could have used its star center.
Even if Kansas does pull together and win another conference championship, though, Embiid’s status stands a very good chance of affecting the Jayhawks’ seeding in March Madness. There are going to be a lot of close calls among the flawed teams vying for the top four seeds, and the selection committee is under no obligation to ignore an injury that’s bound to have an impact on KU’s performance.
If Embiid's back problems make the difference in Kansas getting a lower seed, or landing in a less favorable region, it may not matter whether he returns in time for the start of the tournament itself.
Of course, the biggest issue for Self is how much his team will suffer for Embiid’s absence on the floor. Saturday’s defeat against West Virginia provided a timely demonstration of just how vulnerable the shorthanded Jayhawks could be in a bad matchup in the coming weeks.
Mountaineers freshman Devin Williams ate up Tarik Black (Embiid’s replacement) and the rest of the Kansas front line, piling up 22 points and 13 rebounds in a six-point win in Morgantown. There are many big men out there more dangerous than Williams, and most of them will be playing in the field of 68.
Black's increased role will also hurt Kansas on the offensive end, where he's neither the scorer nor the passer that the precocious Embiid is. When Embiid was commanding constant double-teams during KU's red-hot Big 12 start, he made life easier for everyone else in the offense. Black can't provide that kind of value.
And, as badly as Kansas might want Embiid on the floor, Self has to balance the team's current predicament with the remainder of the career of a not-quite-20-year-old who could be a No. 1 NBA draft pick. How close to ready will Embiid have to be before it becomes worth the risk to throw him out there in a high-intensity postseason game? Only Self will be in a position to make that call.
How far can Kansas go if Embiid is out for the year?
Regardless of Self's decision, Kansas’ postseason hopes are still very much alive. Embiid could recover faster than anticipated, and the Jayhawks still have stars such as Andrew Wiggins headlining their roster.
Still, what had been a strong Final Four contender with a hypothetical Embiid return is looking like a long shot to make it that far in the freshman’s (increasingly likely) absence.