One of the biggest early storylines of the 2014 NCAA tournament surrounds star Kansas center Joel Embiid and his balky back. Embiid has been out since the team's March 1 loss to Oklahoma State, a game in which he aggravated a pre-existing back injury.
Before the Big 12 tournament, USA Today's Daniel Uthman reported that Embiid was unlikely to participate in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Late Wednesday night, Kansas coach Bill Self confirmed those suspicions:
If Kansas is to advance to the Sweet 16, Self noted that he would be significantly more optimistic about his freshman center's availability:
To date, there has been no definitive timetable regarding Embiid's return. Robert Senior of Philly.com quoted Alex Vaccaro, M.D., Ph.D as saying Embiid was facing "a minimum of 5-6 weeks recovery." A return next week would place him at slightly less than four weeks, and other medical personnel are cautioning against expectations:
Embiid himself has not been quoted about a possible return date, so apart from Self's comments, there is little concrete information on the likelihood of the center playing again this season.
Embiid has averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game in a freshman campaign that has exceeded expectations. Most saw the 7-footer from Cameroon as a raw product, but his surprising offensive refinement and defensive prowess has made him a consensus top-three prospect in the NBA Draft, along with teammate Andrew Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker.
Without Embiid, Kansas loses its most significant rim protector. As Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star notes, the Jayhawks' emphasis on compensating for Embiid's absence near the rim may have hampered their perimeter defense during their Big 12 tournament loss to Iowa State:
Self brought up Kansas’ 94-83 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals. After Iowa State hit eight of 12 from three-point range in the first half, Self says his team was too worried about the three-pointers in the second half.
“It's my mistake…” Self said. “We may have been better off to give them some ‘dare’ shots and hope the law of averages prevailed because they got inside of us, and that's where they really hurt us in the second half.”
Kansas should be fine without Embiid against 15th-seeded Eastern Kentucky, but some believe a potential round of 32 matchup with New Mexico could present problems:
With an old-school post-oriented power forward in Cameron Bairstow, the Lobos have a player capable of exploiting the hole in Kansas' defense. Bairstow led New Mexico with 20.4 points per game, and paired with center Alex Kirk, the Lobos' front-line would present a daunting challenge to the Jayhawks.
If Kansas were to survive the first weekend, potential second week opponents include Syracuse or Ohio State in the Sweet 16, and likely Florida in the Elite Eight. None of those teams have a particularly strong interior presence, and in Syracuse's case, the Orange's 2-3 zone might actually play to Kansas' strength as a shooting team.
Regardless, a compromised Embiid would put tremendous pressure on Wiggins to shine. With Kansas just 2-2 in Embiid's absence, the Jayhawks could at least use Embiid's presence to facilitate an expected run deep into the tournament.