No. 2 seed Kansas enters the NCAA Tournament with a list of question marks: Freshman center Joel Embiid is out for the opening weekend; junior guard Naadir Tharpe must lead a young team after struggling for much of March; and the Jayhawks are the No. 2 seed in a South Region that features No. 1 overall seed Florida.
But first, Kansas must face No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky at 3:10 p.m. on Friday at the Scottrade Center. Before the Jayhawks took the floor on Thursday, Kansas coach Bill Self discussed some of the most pressing issues during an afternoon news conference.
Q. We know Embiid is out, but can you tell me how your defense changes without him? And also, is there any chance he could get back for the third round if you get that far?
“We said all along he would be the longest of long shots for this weekend, but that hasn’t, you know, by any stretch ruled out next weekend.
“And he’s making progress in rehab. And, you know, we’re going slow though. We’re not pushing him out there at all. And that could possibly be the case, but we’re not — that wouldn’t be in anyone’s best interests.
“But we are very optimistic we can get him on the practice court the next week. If that is the case, there would be a chance he can play if we are fortunate enough to win two games.
“(Our defense) does change, because we can make mistakes before and mistakes can be wiped away. And now mistakes turn into lay‑ups. And so that’s obviously a big difference.
“And you can tell in the games we played since then, I think we are 3‑2 without him. But in the games in which we lost, you know, teams shot a lot of easy baskets, in large part because we made a lot of the same mistakes we have been making, but he wasn’t there to clean them up. So we have to be much sounder out on the perimeter.
Q: Eastern Kentucky’s guard play was good in the OVC Tournament. What about them concerns you?
“There are a lot of things that concerns me. Offensively they don’t turn it over. They shoot a ton of threes and shoot it very, very well. And they have — it’s not like you can key on one or two or three guys that shoot the threes. They have eight guys that can shoot threes. Their bench can all shoot it as well.
“So offensively they spread you. And then their 5-man is obviously one of the better passing big men in the country. So they’re good. They are very, very good. And defensively they play a little different, because they play very, very high on the floor, probably higher on the floor than anybody we played in recent memory. And certainly they turn you over with their quickness.
“Those are two areas that we haven’t been great at, defending the line and certainly taking care of the basketball and that’s probably the two things they do the best. So obviously reason for us to be concerned and know those are areas we need to be good at.”
Q. Because Eastern Kentucky does play aggressive and up high, how do you look to combat that? Is it on the back end?
“Well, you know, it has been our experience that usually when teams pressure like that, that there’s, you know, reason why they are playing to their strengths or, you know, their skill set or whatever it is.
“But we’re a team that likes to play through our bigs, so somehow we need to negate the pressure so we don’t forget about playing through our bigs. That’s easier said than done.
“Hopefully when teams pressure like that, we have some things we can do to try to make them pay for pressuring like that. Just like if teams play soft, you have things you can do to try to, you know, maybe shoot the ball behind the arc or things like that. So we’ll hopefully be prepared to combat how they play.”