Five favorites for the national title, Kansas without Embiid, more mail

Wednesday March 12th, 2014

Joel Embiid likely will not play until Kanas' second game in the NCAA tournament.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Ryon Barker (@ryonbizark): is Kansas' seed going to drop because of Joel's injury?

Pretty Flacko (@Tyler_Capone): Kansas ceiling without Embiid?

Jim Barron (@Barron1123): can Kansas win it all without Embiid

Kyle (@Kyle_Ross22): Can Kansas make it to the Sweet 16 w/o Embiid?

These represent a very small sampling of the Joel Embiid-related questions I got, so let's separate the issues at hand.

The only thing certainty about Kansas' 7-foot prodigy is that he will not play in the Big 12 tournament. That's because we now know the cause of his chronic back pain: He has been diagnosed with a slight stress fracture in his lower back. Last weekend, Embiid traveled to California to get a second opinion from a specialist, who confirmed the diagnosis.

At this point, the doctors have told Embiid that he can't harm his back further by playing. That leaves two questions: How long it will take his symptoms to subside? And how much pain he can tolerate? This situation is reminiscent of the one UConn center Emeka Okafor faced at the end of the 2003-04 season. You all remember how that ended: Okafor led the Huskies to the NCAA championship and went on to have a prosperous NBA career.

From everything I'm hearing out of Kansas, I'm not ruling out the possibility that Embiid will play on the first week of the NCAA tournament. But it is not likely. The coaching staff is optimistic Embiid would be available for the second week, but until we reach that point, it is hard to know whether he will be ready to play. It's also fair to say that if he and when he does return, he will not be the same Joel Embiid he was when he got hurt. Because of the nature of his injury, not only is Embiid not permitted to practice, but he also cannot do any conditioning work. So he's going to be woefully out of shape.

As far as Kansas' seed, Embiid's injury will work both ways. On the one hand, he did not play when the Jayhawks lost at West Virginia, and if the Jayhawks lose in the conference tournament, they will have done so without him as well. So the committee will give them some benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, we know Embiid probably won't be available the first week, and he may not play at all. So the committee could penalize them for that. My guess is the committee will leave Kansas as a 2 seed, which is where I think they were headed anyway. No team with eight losses has ever been a 1, and I don't think the committee would want to break that precedent.

Incidentally, there are two good reasons for Kansas to end up as a No. 2. First, it means the Jayhawks will be sent to the Midwest. If they are a 1, that wouldn't be the case because Wichita State is ahead on the overall seed line. Second, that sets up a potential Wichita State-KU game in the Elite Eight, which is something we all want to see.

Hayden Carlin (@haydencarlin): Hey Seth, with a healthy Grant back in the rotation now, is Syracuse a national championship contender again?

This has been a very under-reported aspect of Syracuse's late-season swoon. When the Orange lost to Boston College at home, they were basically without Baye Moussa Keita, their backup center who was limited to two minutes of court time because of a sprained knee. Jerami Grant, the invaluable 6-8 shot-blocking sophomore, did not play in the loss to Georgia Tech because of a bad back, and he missed the entire second half at Virginia. Remember, that was a two-point game with 10 minutes to play before the Cavaliers pulled away to win by 19. Thus, the only game Syracuse lost when it had its full complement of players was at Duke.

Grant returned on Sunday to play 35 minutes, and he finished with 16 points and eight rebounds in a 16-point win at Florida State. That should tell you how important he is to this team.

Injuries have an especially great effect on this team because Jim Boeheim basically plays a six-man rotation. If the team loses one of those players, it takes a bigger hit than if Boeheim played eight or nine guys. This is why I've been saying that if Syracuse wins the ACC championship, I think it should be a No. 1 seed. Yes, the Orange still struggle in the halfcourt offense (especially when Trevor Cooney isn't making outside shots, which has been the case for too long), but that means it depends even more on its zone defense to lock down opponents and create scoring opportunities. With a healthy Jerami Grant, Syracuse is very much in the hunt to win a national championship. One really good player on a team with limited depth can make that much difference.

William Weidert (@wweidert): Do you think some refs are too quick with their whistle with the new rules?

It's interesting to me how this has ebbed and flowed as a topic of conversation. Well, I say get ready, because you're about to hear a lot more on this topic when the NCAA tournament starts.

Let's recount where we've been. As the season approached, talk of the "new rules" put in place during the off-season dominated discussion about college basketball. I put that phrase in quotation marks because most of the changes were not new rules. They were adjustments made to the rulebook: Language on physical defense and hand checking was moved from an appendix closer to the front of the book. The only significant "new rule" was the change made to the block/charge call mandating that a defender had to be set before the offensive player was going into his upward motion in an attempt to leave the floor for a pass or shot.

When the games began, fans, coaches, players and media complained about the plethora of calls, even though the statistics showed that the increase of fouls was negligible. Everyone, including the referees, went through an adjustment period over the next few weeks, until everyone seemed to get to a comfortable place.

Then, conference play started, and it was apparent that referees were getting lax in applying the new standards. In response, NCAA's reffing czar, John Adams, posted a memo on the NCAA's internal website that he and the men's basketball committee had noticed this slippage, and they wanted it to be corrected. That is what happened -- for a while, anyway.

Based on my conversations with coaches over the last few weeks, and based on what I've seen, it appears that the refs are once again letting too much contact go. Adams has noticed the same thing. Next week, he is going to have a conference call with roughly 100 officials, during which he plans to re-emphasize the importance of preserving freedom of movement for the offensive player, whether he's a dribbler or cutter. Remember, referees are independent contractors who are monitored by various league coordinators. So the only area in which Adams and the committee have the ability to reward and punish the zebras is through their assignments in the NCAA tournament.

In other words, another adjustment is coming. Players and coaches who grew accustomed to more physical play down the stretch of the regular season are going to be dealing with referees who will call games more strictly because, just like the teams, they want to advance to the later rounds of the NCAA tournament. This is all part of the adjustment process that is going to take longer than one year. Former Phoenix Suns' GM Jerry Colangelo recently told Adams that when the NBA clamped down on hand checking, it took three years for everyone to adjust accordingly. And that's with one commissioner and a smaller roster of referees who are fulltime league employees. So the task that college basketball faces in cleaning things up is even more daunting. It's a worthy destination, but we will see during the NCAA tournament that the journey won't always be pretty.

Parasauralophus (@lophus89): You get to pick X teams to win National Title, I get the field. What's the smallest X you take as 50/50, & who?

Fascinating take on an age-old question. The first time the NCAA tournament started seeding teams was in 1979. Since that time, roughly four out of five champions have been either a 1 or a 2 seed. So if eight teams win a title about 80 percent of the time, then I'd figure you'd need six to generate 50 percent odds. To make it more interesting, just give me five.

Okay, so here are my five.

Florida. My pick to win it all.

Syracuse. Got their mojo back.

Louisville. Pitino is working his late-season magic again.

Wichita State. Yes, I think they're that good.

Michigan State. They're not healthy and in sync now, but they've got two weeks to get there.

Those are my five. You can have the field, straight up. Of course, these opinions are for entertainment purposes only, so please, no wagering.

Christopher Morris (@ChrisMorrisEsq): If you had to pick a darkhorse for the Final Four and two for the Elite Eight, who would they be?

I'll be changing my answer to this question several times over the next week, so here goes nothing:

Final Four dark horse: Creighton. I realize having a historically great player like Doug McDermott doesn't quite qualify as the Bluejays as a dark horse; but even though they're in the Big East, the Bluejays are basically a midmajor school that has never had to perform under the bright lights of the later rounds of the NCAA tournament. I think McDermott will hold up well, but he's gonna need a lot of help from his friends if Creighton is going to make it to North Texas.

As for my Elite Eight dark horses ...

New Mexico. No other team in the tournament will have a two-headed monster up front like Alex Kirk and Cameron Bairstow. Those dudes are legitimately big, and they really how to play. As long as the Lobos are better prepared to face a 1-3-1 defense like the one Steve Fisher threw at them last weekend, they will be a tough out.

Oklahoma. Lots of teams are good defensively, but there aren't too many who can light up a scoreboard like the Sooners. Sophomore forward Ryan Spangler, a 6-8 transfer from Gonzaga, gives them a rebounding presence they've lacked in the past. And in case you haven't noticed, Lon Kruger is a really, really good coach.

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