ST. LOUIS – Tarik Black is at Kansas, and there have been days when he’s had to remind himself that’s good enough.
Maybe it hasn’t gone exactly like he had planned. He wasn’t able to hold on to the starting job he thought was his because somebody bigger and better, freshman Joel Embiid, came along.
Through his first nine games, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Black had more fouls (26) than rebounds (24). His decision to transfer from Memphis, where he graduated last spring, and use his final season of eligibility playing for Kansas was beginning to come into doubt.
Fortunately, though, it’s a long season. And with Embiid’s back injury having kept him out of the past five games, Black has helped fill a gaping hole by averaging nine points and 7.4 rebounds in those games. He has made 21 of 28 shots and had 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting during Friday’s 80-69 NCAA Tournament win over Eastern Kentucky.
They’re not exactly asking “Joel Who?” around Lawrence, but Black, along with sophomore Jamari Traylor, has helped make Embiid’s loss tolerable.
“Nothing really goes as planned, but I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate to be out here in Kansas,” Black said. “I really didn’t know what to expect coming out here except I knew that I was coming to a great university to play for a great coach and a great team. So in that respect, it has been everything I expected.”
Black also stepped to the front of the line as KU’s starting center, a veteran anchor to a young and talented team.
“I think his expectations were that he would come in and probably have more of an impact from a minute standpoint, a production standpoint,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Not that he would play all the time, but we probably anticipated him being a starter for us.”
Black started the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe and had eight points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. But in the second game of the season, against Duke in the Champions Classic in Chicago, Black got into early foul trouble and played six minutes.
Meanwhile, a beast named Embiid was beginning to breath fire.
“When a young guy comes around like Joel did, there’s not too many guys in America that would have beaten him out,” Self said. “So Tarik became the best teammate and the best first guy off the bench that we feel like there is in the country.”
It’s not like Black could transfer again. He’s not that kind, anyway. He took on a different role than he’s accustomed to – he played double-digit minutes only three times during a 12-game stretch from late November until mid-January – and did the best he could.
“I had really high hopes when I came to Kansas,” Black said. “But at the same time, being an older guy, I understand we live in reality. Everything wasn’t going to go perfect and everything wasn’t going to be all great for me.”
It wasn’t just the emergence of Embiid, either.
Black said he struggled with a new system, especially the change of defensive style and philosophy.
“I really hang my hat on playing defense,” Black said. “But there were really two different defensive strategies coming from Memphis to Kansas. It has to do with the rotations, helping uphill, defending ball screens. It’s just a much different philosophy here and it was a hard transition.”
Black hasn’t been able to replace the 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds Embiid left behind all by himself. But the hole hasn’t been as gaping as originally feared. It helped that in Black’s first game in place of Embiid, he scored 19 points and made all nine shots he took against Texas Tech.
“I don’t know if our expectations for Tarik have been met the whole season,” Self said. “But I would say they’re being met now.
“He’s been terrific. And he prepares every day the right way. It’s no surprise to me that since Joel has been out, we really haven’t missed what a lot of people thought we would because Tarik has played so well. And he was really good against Eastern Kentucky.”
Black said he’s just trying to help the team. One of the reasons he came to Kansas is to have a chance to win a national championship and the Jayhawks are still in the hunt.
“All of us, we learn from each other,” Black said. “The age doesn’t make a difference. I’ve learned from playing against Joel every day in the gym and from all of the other big men, too – Perry (Ellis), Landon (Lucas) and Jamari. I’ve stolen from things from each and every one of them.”