LAWRENCE — They say the wall is real. They say that it’s a freshman thing, that the injuries, practices and games can pile up like miles on an odometer.
By RUSTIN DODD
The Kansas City Star
They say the wall looks a lot like KU center Joel Embiid, who left the KU locker room Friday afternoon and slowly walked into practice with an icepack around his sore left knee. Embiid, who is also battling a sore back, didn’t practice Friday. He didn’t practice all week. And he won’t play Saturday, when No. 7 Kansas faces TCU at 3 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse.
“It’s a lot, lot better,” Self said Friday of Embiid’s back. “But it’s still not totally pain free.”
Maybe Embiid, who is playing just his third season of organized basketball, is running up against the vaunted freshman wall — the college basketball narrative that appears to pop up every February. Maybe Kansas, with three freshman starters, and four more playing reserve minutes, is butting against a wall as a team, going 2-2 in the last four games. Andrew Wiggins has struggled at times over the last few weeks. Wayne Selden was a near no-show in Monday’s loss at K-State.
But if you ask some of Kansas’ freshmen, they are not even sure the whole wall phenomenon is real.
“I wouldn’t say that; I wouldn’t say that at all,” KU freshman wing Brannen Greene said this week. “Jo’s had a great freshman year, so has Wiggs, so has Wayne, all of us have had a pretty good freshman year. I’d just say he’s a little bit beat up.”
So do the freshmen-laden Jayhawks really need to worry about barriers — either physical or emotional? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
“The length of the season, that’s what I think it really is,” senior forward Tarik Black said. “Your body gets worn out a little bit more, and it’s tougher. And your body can’t take as much as it’s used to.”
If the Kansas basketball season has a dog days portion, it may just be the next five days. On Saturday, the Jayhawks face a TCU program that is 0-11 in league play and decimated by injuries. Three days later, Kansas will travel to Texas Tech, a game that’s never been circled on the schedule. So, yes, these are the dog days of February, when the weather is still crummy, and March is still a couple of weeks off, and some of the motivation and focus must be manufactured.
“If it was baseball and you get to August or whatever, those are probably dog days,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And I’m sure football season is the same way, that you get late in the season that it becomes more of a grind.”
Most of the players on this Kansas team are experiencing this grind for the first time. But if the Jayhawks need a reason to be motivated, Greene said, all they need to do is look at the Big 12 standings.
Kansas, 18-6 overall and 9-2 in Big 12 play, has just a one-game lead over Texas after falling to K-State in overtime last Monday.
“Every game matters right now,” said Greene, who played pivotal minutes in the loss against K-State. “Guys are beat up, too, so that obviously factors into it. Hopefully we can get them back, but this is a very important seven-game stretch.”
It’s not just Embiid who is banged up. Black, who will likely take his place in the starting lineup, has been battling through the pain of a sprained ankle.
“At this level, when you get hurt, for some reason it just seems like it’s worse,” Black said. “As you get older and older, and you climb in college a little bit … your injuries become worse.”
Maybe the freshman wall is real — at least for some. But for Self, this stretch of the season is about maintenance and focus.
“You only play 35 games,” Self said. “I don’t see how you can’t be excited every game.
“The thing about it is, this time of year more than anything, it’s not so much if you get yourself energized as much as how does your body feel. There’s a lot of sore bodies across America right now.”
Self ruled Embiid out of Saturday’s game against TCU, but Self hopes Embiid can return to the court this weekend. Embiid, battling knee and back issues, hasn’t practiced since Monday’s loss at K-State, and while he won’t play Saturday, he could do a short on-floor workout with the KU training staff on Saturday or Sunday.
“His back has gotten a lot better,” Self said on Friday, “but it’s still not where the doctors feel it needs to be.”
Embiid is averaging 10.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in 22 minutes per game. But his production has taken a hit since suffering the initial knee injury; he’s averaging just 8.8 points and 9.2 rebounds in his last five games.