STOP! Back away slowly. You don’t want to do this.
Kansas star freshman Joel Embiid is set to miss all of the Big 12 tournament, and more than likely the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. There is even a chance, however slight, that he will miss the rest of the season with what has been diagnosed as a stress fracture of his spine. Not all that uncommon amongst young athletes, and nothing that a solid rehab plan can’t heal quickly. Still, the news has many KU fans on the edge of the proverbial cliff.
When in fact, I don’t think its warranted one bit. KU is 6-3 since Embiid was first tweaked in the WVU game. Taking the second WVU game out of the equation as I am apt to do given its insignificance, KU has lost only to Kansas State and Oklahoma State on the road with either no Joel, or a slight less impressive version of himself in the lineup. And make no mistake, Embiid hasn’t been the same since he went out the first time. His statistics may have been relatively consistent, and the way he effects the game on the defensive end of the floor can’t be denied, but I haven’t seen the rapidly rising star from early in the season out there. His progression has been stunted somewhat by health, and that is to be expected. For a while there, Joel was on an absolute tear and improving game to game. That hast’t been the case in recent weeks.
Now. I am not saying Embiid is not very important to this teams chances to win it all. They are, and I can’t deny it. I am saying two things:
1. There are other things that if KU does not correct, will eliminate their chances to win with or without him.
2. Most of Embiid’s production can and should be compensated for by a very deep KU bench.
First, Naadir Tharpe has to get back to doing what he was doing in the early portion of league play. Namely, facilitating those around him, controlling the game on both ends and playing good enough defense so as not to be a liability. Tharpe is never going to be a great on the ball defender. He lacks the size and lateral quickness required. But he has to be a smarter defender than he has been in the last few games. Against a guy like Staten, he looked completely inadequate. That simply cannot happen. If he does not get back on track, KU will have a short post-season with or without Joel Embiid.
They Jayhawks also have a deep bench to rely on. Tarik Black showed flashes of absolute excellence on Senior Night. He was as dominant in the paint as Embiid had been earlier in the year. Really, just unstoppable when he got the ball in the right spot. He, Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor have to step up in Embiid’s absence if KU is to have a legitimate shot. Particularly on the defensive end. The interior defense was an embarrassment against West Virginia. It comes down to pride. KU needs to want it more than they appear to. They have to revel in forcing turnovers or shot-clock violations. A job well done.
I think the Embiid injury may galvanize this team some. They have been humbled twice this week. Once when they went to WVU and lost to an inferior team, and now they lose a great freshman player. Pundits want to talk about how far their seed line should drop. They may just use this as a chance to come together and prove some people wrong. Just in time for Embiid to come back and contribute, if he is able.
And if he isn’t, nobody panic. Like I said before, he may just miss the rest of the year with this thing. Or, he may come back only to re-injure the back and leave again. It shouldn’t matter one bit. KU is still deeper, more talented and a better coached team than almost any other in America. They become a special, scary threat when Embiid is healthy. But you don’t have to be a special, scary threat to cut down nets in April.