For a 7-foot teenager, the human back can be a fragile and delicate thing. For the moment, the same can be said about Kansas' hopes for a long March run.
Kansas announced Monday that freshman center Joel Embiid will miss this week’s Big 12 Tournament and likely the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament after a spinal specialist in Los Angeles confirmed the initial diagnosis of a stress fracture in Embiid’s back.
“Based on that, this weekend is out,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement released Monday night. “Next weekend, we feel like is a longshot, but the doctors are hopeful that if Joel works hard in rehab and progresses that it is possible that he could play in the later rounds of the NCAA Tournament if our team is fortunate enough to advance.”
Embiid has already missed two games while battling the injury, and the latest developments cast a long shadow on the Jayhawks’ chances in the NCAA Tournament.
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“We’re all very disappointed for Joel,” Self said. “He’s worked so hard and improved so much. He’s been one of the most improved players in the country in such a short amount of time. The most important thing is for Joel to get healthy. We were hopeful, Joel was hopeful, the doctors were hopeful that his body would respond more rapidly to rehab and that has not been the case.”
While Embiid was seeking a second opinion on his back — a second opinion that came at his family’s request — Self was back in Lawrence, sorting through the situation.
Earlier Monday, Self said he couldn’t envision a scenario in which Embiid wouldn’t play in the NCAA Tournament. His back has felt better over the last week, Self said, and Embiid has begun to run in a pool to maintain his conditioning. But Kansas still appears inclined to play it safe with Embiid, who is averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds while growing into a potential top-three pick in the NBA Draft.
The Jayhawks shut Embiid down for the regular season on March 3. Seven days later, the rest will continue.
“We said before that we were going to hold him out this week, that’s what we’ve done,” Self said on Monday afternoon. “And certainly we want him healthy when we get to the NCAA Tournament. As bad as we’d like to play him this weekend, I’m not going to risk that.”
As Self’s words rippled across the country on Monday morning, the Jayhawks prepared to open the Big 12 Tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday against the winner of No. 8 seed Oklahoma State and No. 9 seed Texas Tech. Conference tournaments can feel a little like the Black Sheep of the college hoops season. But KU still has something to play for. After Saturday’s loss at West Virginia, Self said he believed Kansas needed to win the Big 12 Tournament to lay claim to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“For us to get back on the 1-line,” Self said, “I would say that we’d probably have to win the tournament and Villanova would probably have to not win (the Big East Tournament). But you know, that’s really not our focus.”
In a simple sense, Self says, the focus is to play well this week. But with Embiid on the sideline until late March, the focus is also to get healthy. To be at their best when it counts, the Jayhawks will need a healthy Embiid.
“I really believe — and of course I’m biased — when he’s healthy and playing well he has the potential to impact the game on both ends as much as anybody in the country,” Self said.
The 10th-ranked Jayhawks, 23-8, lost two of three to end the Big 12 season. But the prospect of Embiid and Andrew Wiggins is a promising scenario: While the Jayhawks have proven they can lose on just about any night, their ceiling — if fully healthy — might be as high as any team in the country.
TCU coach Trent Johnson is one of three coaches that has faced Kansas with and without Embiid. The Jayhawks handled Johnson’s Horned Frogs both times, but the presence of Embiid adds something difference — something that feels a little more title-worthy.
“Obviously the big fella makes a big difference in having a chance to win it all,” Johnson said on Monday. “They need to have him in the stretch.”
It may seem like Self has dealt with few serious injuries during his Kansas tenure, but this is not the first time KU has entered the month of March with health questions.
During his first year at Kansas, Self recalled Monday, guard Keith Langford needed microfracture surgery and spent the last weeks of the season just playing in games. Wayne Simien held to a similar routine the next year, during his senior year. And former Kansas guard Sherron Collins finished out his career by stepping on the practice floor for individual drills — before retreating to the weight room to rehab.
“We’ve done things like that in the past,” Self said.
Embiid's back could be the worst blow yet. Kansas must move forward with its star center on the sideline. Senior Tarik Black, who started the last two games for Embiid, will likely slide into the starting lineup indefinitely. Black had 19 points on nine-of-nine shooting against Texas Tech before scoring just two points and recording four fouls in Saturday’s loss at West Virginia.
Sophomore Jamari Traylor and freshman Landen Lucas could also see more minutes. But as the Big 12 tournament beckons , KU is moving into an uncertain future.
“Our team feels bad for Joel,” said Self, who added that he won’t comment on Embiid’s day-to-day status moving forward. “But this in no way changes our original postseason goals and our team will rally around this.”