The NCAA selection committee will hunker down in a room on Sunday in Indianapolis, piecing together a bracket of 68 teams. The committee members will consider many variables: High-quality wins. Strength of schedule. And this year, yes, injuries.
The latest test case for how the committee deals with a team’s health: It’s right here in Kansas.
The 10th-ranked Jayhawks likely will be without starting center Joel Embiid — sidelined by a stress fracture in his back — until the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament, should KU advance that far.
It’s a sizable hit for a team that has spent a large chunk of the season in the top 10 and won a 10th straight Big 12 title with the 7-foot Embiid patrolling the paint. Just last week, Kansas was in position to land a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But after Saturday’s loss at West Virginia — and Monday’s news that Embiid could be out until late March — another question moved to the forefront: Will the selection committee downgrade Kansas’ seed if it thinks the Jayhawks aren’t worthy of a No. 1 or No. 2 seed without Embiid?
The question made Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, the chair of the NCAA selection committee, a much sought-after man on Tuesday. Less than 24 hours after the Embiid news dropped, Wellman appeared on ESPNU to clarify the committee’s position on Kansas and injuries.
“The committee does consider injuries, suspensions or any other factors that might have influenced the outcome of games,” Wellman said. “With a case like Joel Embiid, with the injury occurring late in the season, it’s a bit of a different situation. But the committee will have the opportunity to watch Kansas play without him, and in fact has already seen the Jayhawks play a few games with him sidelined.”
Kansas, 23-8, is 2-1 in games without Embiid, but both victories came at home against Big 12 bottom-feeders TCU and Texas Tech. In the latest game without Embiid, the Jayhawks lost 92-86 on Saturday at West Virginia. But based on resume — the Jayhawks played the nation’s toughest schedule — KU was projected to fall on the No. 2 line after the West Virginia loss — with an outside chance at a No. 1.
On Tuesday, Wellman said the committee may contact Kansas to gain information about Embiid’s availability. There is no hard-and-fast protocol for how the selection committee must handle injuries, but there are some precedents.
In 2000, the selection committee dropped Cincinnati, which had been ranked No. 1 most of the season, to a No. 2 seed after All-American Kenyon Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament. Then Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins protested: “How do they know how good we’ll be without Kenyon?”
The same year, Arizona lost center Loren Woods for the NCAA Tournament to a back issue, but the Wildcats still got a No. 1 seed. In 2004, UConn was dropped to the No. 2 line when Emeka Okafor was battling a back injury. But Okafor was able to return, and the Huskies won it all.
That’s a precedent that could calm some of Kansas’ anxiety after Embiid’s back issues turned out to be far worse than a “lower-back sprain” — the original explanation for Embiid’s time off.
If the Jayhawks advance to the Sweet 16, Embiid would have either 26 or 27 days of rest before Kansas’ regional semifinal game, depending on which region the Jayhawks land in. He last played March 1, in a loss at Oklahoma State. According to Kansas coach Bill Self, that might be enough time for Embiid to finish out the healing process.
“We will monitor the situation closely,” Wellman said Tuesday, “and if necessary we’ll be in touch with administrators from KU to get updated information.”