It was late on Wednesday afternoon, and the biggest teenager in the Sprint Center picked up a basketball with his right foot and started to juggle. Joel Embiid flipped the ball from one instep to the other, showing off some quick soccer moves while the rest of the Kansas Jayhawks went through a light shootaround on the eve of the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals.
Embiid did a little more than juggle. Two days after Kansas announced that Embiid was out indefinitely because of a stress fracture in his back, the big man moved around the floor leisurely, smiling as he shot three-pointers and worked through some light post drills with the KU big men. One minute he was juggling a basketball, the next he was playfully trying to guard fellow freshman Andrew Wiggins.
“Let’s go,” Embiid said.
But before anyone could wonder if some miraculous faith healer had stopped by Allen Fieldhouse this week, Kansas coach Bill Self hit a group of reporters with a quick reality check.
“He was just out there jacking around,” Self said.
For the next two weeks, Embiid is more likely to be juggling a soccer ball during a shootaround than juggling defensive assignments in an NCAA Tournament game. For now, Self is still holding out hope that Embiid might return next week during the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but he concedes that the “percentages are that he won’t.”
This was reality as the Jayhawks arrived in Kansas City and waited to face No. 8 seed Oklahoma State at 2 p.m. Thursday. For the next two weeks, the focus will linger on the status of Embiid’s back. But in more practical terms, Self would like to focus on what the Jayhawks still have.
“You should never, ever talk about what you don’t have when things don’t go well,” Self said. “So we have to make some adjustments. We can’t let opponents get to the rim, because obviously the rim protector is not there as much as we’ve had in the past.”
The loss of Embiid leaves a hole in the middle, but the Jayhawks are confident they can be great with him on the sideline. They believe they have enough.
Just one season ago, sophomore forward Perry Ellis arrived at the Sprint Center as a freshman in the final stages of an up-and-down season. Three days later, he was selected to the all-tournament team, averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as Kansas won its sixth Big 12 tournament in eight years.
“I just remember coach telling me to be aggressive,” Ellis said, “and he’s telling me the same this year.”
The Jayhawks will need increased production from Ellis over the next couple of weeks, but they will also need more steady play from senior forward Tarik Black, who has slid into the starting lineup.
Black had 19 points in Kansas’ Senior Day victory over Texas Tech — the first game after Embiid was shut down — but he backed that up with just two points in the loss at West Virginia.
“It wasn’t a one-man show when he was with us,” Black said. “He was a big part of our team. But at the same time, we’re still just Kansas. We’re still just the name on the front of the jersey, so that’s how we plan to play.”
In three games without Embiid, Kansas is 2-1, the victories coming against conference lightweights Texas Tech and TCU. Now the Jayhawks must prove they can be an elite team without Embiid. The process starts today against Oklahoma State, who handed Kansas a loss in the last game before the KU staff detected Embiid’s stress fracture.
“I want to see us play tougher,” Self said. “I want to see us make somebody play poorly as opposed to everybody operating within their comfort zone against us.”
For now, the Jayhawks likely project as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But that might change with an early exit on Thursday. The NCAA selection committee could also factor in Embiid’s injury into the Jayhawks’ seeding, but Self says he’s not too concerned with that possibility.
“You’re assuming that things won’t go well this weekend,” Self said, adding: “You’d like to go into the postseason tournament and validate what you’ve done over the last couple months. And that would be to come over here and play really well and to win it.”
Before the Jayhawks left the Sprint Center court on Wednesday afternoon, they huddled up for a moment, ending practice with the same words as always.
“One, two, three, national champs!”
“We can still do that,” Black said. “We’re definitely still, in my mind, one of the top teams in the country. We’re definitely still a contender. It hasn’t gone out the window at all.”