Kansas will begin the postseason without Joel Embiid. And it more than likely will continue the postseason without its 7-foot freshman center, too, threatening the Jayhawks' championship hopes.
Spinal specialists in Los Angeles confirmed that the Big 12 defensive player of the year has a stress fracture in his back, per a release from Kansas on Monday night, and that will prevent Embiid from playing in the conference tournament this week. More critically: His recovery and rehab also makes him "unlikely" to play in first weekend of the NCAA tournament, per the school.
"Based on that, this weekend (in the Big 12 Championship) is out," Kansas coach Bill Self said in a statement. “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.
"We’re all very disappointed for Joel. 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."
And that is a potentially stinging blow to Kansas, which has legitimate national title aspirations with Embiid in the lineup but a far murkier outlook with him sidelined or even severely limited. The Jayhawks might have enough firepower offensively to compensate, but the defensive toll was obvious in games in which Embiid played less than 20 minutes during the regular season. Embiid's 72 blocks were 40 percent of the team total and he also added a team-best 8.1 rebounds per game, all of it helping him earn second-team All-Big 12 honors.
Without the official examination results on hand, Self said Monday morning that he envisioned Embiid returning to practice early next week and being ready for the NCAA tournament. That tune changed, dramatically, in the following hours.
According to Kansas, doctors assured the Jayhawks staff that Embiid would return to the floor "within a few weeks." That may or may not help the team fulfill its championship aspirations and, in a way, opens the field even more on the whole. No one player's presence - or lack thereof - was going to affect one title contender's hopes as much as Embiid's. Self said his team would rally around this misfortune, but that will be quite a rally.
"Everyone is 100 percent confident that Joel will heal and be back to normal soon, but the most important thing is that he gets well,” Self said. “We’re certainly not going to put him out there unless the doctors, his family and Joel are ready for him to go. I know how bad he wants it, and that he will work his butt off to put him in a position where if our team is successful and fortunate enough to advance, he could return in later rounds." Suddenly, Kansas can be far more anxious about getting even that far.