If you believe in the aura of advanced statistics — the formulas and algorithms that dominate the modern sports landscape — the loss of a promising freshman center can be overcome.
The numbers say so, if you can believe that.
Joel Embiid turned 20 on Sunday. He is 7 feet tall, and the winner of the genetic lottery. Nimble feet, sculpted broad shoulders and a shooter’s touch.
He is also owner of a fragile back, and Kansas coach Bill Self remains unsure of Embiid’s status for the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
On the surface, the absence of Embiid feels crippling. The Jayhawks lose their most reliable rim protector. During a 1-2 stretch before the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks posted two of their worst defensive efforts of the last five years. Embiid was on the shelf for the last four games. This is all connected.
But dig deeper, and the numbers paint a slightly more optimistic picture for No. 2 seed Kansas, which will open the NCAA Tournament against No. 15 Eastern Kentucky at 3:10 p.m. Friday in St. Louis.
Nate Silver, the statistical wizard who correctly predicted all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election, unveiled his projections for the NCAA Tournament on Monday, using a collection of computer formulas. His model gave Kansas a 20.8-percent chance to make the Final Four. With a healthy Embiid, the percentage rose to just 24.3 percent.
So perhaps the loss of a potential lottery pick in the middle is not a death knell. But for the next two rounds, it’s likely that Kansas will have to survive with Embiid in a sweatsuit on the bench.
“Joel, he’s a special player,” freshman wing Andrew Wiggins said. “You can’t really find one that’s like him — 7-foot, can shoot, pass, can finish around the rim. (He has) great hands. So it’s hard to find another player like him.”
The beauty of the NCAA Tournament, of course, is that Kansas doesn’t need to find another Embiid during the next three weeks. They just need two victories, buying another week for the stress fracture in his back to heal.
The mission begins against Eastern Kentucky, and with a victory, will continue Sunday against the winner of No. 7 seed New Mexico and No. 10 Stanford.
All three teams could pose problems for Kansas. But without Embiid, the problems may look a little different. Eastern Kentucky will start five players under 6 feet 8 and test Kansas from the three-point line. The Colonels rank 28th nationally in three-point percentage and score 34.6 percent of their points from behind the arc, the 21st-highest mark in the country.
“They're averaging six or seven more threes a game than their opponents, which is a lot,” Self said. “That's a big difference.”
If Embiid is out, the goal will be simple: Guard the three-point line while not sacrificing anything in the paint. To illustrate this point, Self brought up Kansas’ 94-83 loss to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals. After Iowa State hit eight of 12 from three-point range in the first half, Self says his team was too worried about the three-pointers in the second half.
“It's my mistake” Self said. “We may have been better off to give them some ‘dare’ shots and hope the law of averages prevailed because they got inside of us, and that's where they really hurt us in the second half.”
For Self, the larger concern could come in a potential rematch with No. 7 New Mexico on Sunday, if both teams advance. When Kansas defeated the Lobos 80-63 at the Sprint Center in December, Embiid finished with 18 points and four blocks, a flash of his tantalizing defensive ability.
Even with Embiid dominating, New Mexico senior power forward Cameron Bairstow finished with 24 points on seven-of-15 shooting. Center Alex Kirk also fouled out in 18 minutes, while starting guard Hugh Greenwood was playing with a broken hand.
“Their big kid got two quick fouls in the first 3 minutes, which kind of changed things,” Self said. “We were fortunate.”
For the moment, Kansas is focused on Eastern Kentucky. But in a larger sense, this week will be about buying more time. More time for senior Tarik Black, Embiid’s main replacement inside, and more time for Wiggins, who is entering his only NCAA Tournament.
But mostly, the Jayhawks would like to buy more time for Embiid and his ailing back.
“With or without him, we know what we have to do,” KU freshman guard Wayne Selden said. “We have to come out and compete. And we have to play defense, we have to have energy — with or without him.”