Kansas center Joel Embiid boarded a plane on Sunday and flew to Los Angeles, seeking a second opinion from a back specialist in the area.
Embiid, sidelined because of an undisclosed lower-back injury, was to meet with a doctor on Monday morning before heading back to Lawrence. If it sounds ominous, well, that’s the nature of back injuries.
But Kansas coach Bill Self tried to soothe any concerns on Sunday, three days before the start of the Big 12 Tournament, saying the trip to California was planned since Embiid was shut down for the last two games of the regular season.
“It’s the same game plan we said we would follow,” Self said on Sunday evening in a brief conversation.
The injury, though, is certainly cause for concern as No. 8 Kansas prepares for the postseason. Self said on Sunday that Embiid’s injury is more “significant” than a lower-back strain, the term used last week when KU announced Embiid would miss regular-season games against Texas Tech and West Virginia.
Self wouldn’t disclose the specific lower-back injury or condition plaguing Embiid, but he remains hopeful Embiid will be in position to be healthy for the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s nothing where he won’t be feeling great in four weeks with some rest,” Self said. “But we don’t have four weeks.”
Embiid’s nagging back issues surfaced on Feb. 8, when he tweaked his lower back in the second half of a home victory against West Virginia. Embiid was already battling a sprained knee, and his production slipped over the following weeks.
After Kansas’ loss at K-State on Feb. 10, Self shut Embiid down for five days and he missed a home rout over TCU. Embiid returned, looking healthier in a victory against Texas Tech, but he re-aggravated the injury in a loss at Oklahoma State on March 1.
“The whole deal is it’s not an injury that he could hurt worse,” Self said. “I don’t think we would put him back out there if it was. We’re going to evaluate him and give him the best chance to finish strong.”
Embiid is averaging 11.2 points and 8.1 rebounds while setting the KU freshman record with 72 blocks. He was selected the Big 12 coaches’ defensive player of the year on Sunday.
With Embiid in the lineup, playing alongside a still evolving Andrew Wiggins, the Jayhawks are a Final Four contender that claimed a 10th straight Big 12 title. With Embiid out, they are something less.
During Saturday’s loss at West Virginia, the lack of a 7-foot rim protector was glaring. West Virginia guard Juwan Staten decimated KU’s perimeter defenders, and slashing to the rim or dishing off to West Virginia forward Devin Williams, who had 22 points.
“Did we miss him? We probably did,” Self said. “But Williams also made a lot of his shots stepping away from the basket.”
So now Self and Kansas will wait on the latest tests and evaluations on Embiid’s back. The doctor who will look at Embiid on Monday is the same doctor that looked at his tests earlier this season, Self said.
The upcoming schedule could also factor into Embiid’s return. The Jayhawks will open the Big 12 Tournament at 2 p.m. on Thursday. They face the prospect of three games in three days, and that could mean limiting Embiid’s minutes or bringing him back into the rotation slowly. But first, Self says, the Jayhawks will wait until the doctors say Embiid is ready to return.
“If we have to hold him out for him to 100 percent for the NCAA,” Self said. “We’ll do that.”