Herein lies the quandary for Kansas coach Bill Self.
KU freshman center Joel Embiid is really good at basketball. And he’s becoming more brilliant by the hour, as evidenced by his 18-point performance in an 80-63 victory over New Mexico on Saturday night at the Sprint Center.
And still, if the 13th-ranked Jayhawks want to evolve into the NCAA title contenders that so many envisioned, Embiid will need to be playing 30 minutes per game. But the more Embiid plays, Self says, the more his talents will be wanted elsewhere. It’s clear that his time in Lawrence could be limited to just one season.
“We need to play him all the time,” Self said. “But the more he plays, the less time he’s going to spend in Lawrence.
“So I’m not sure it’s a real wise decision for me to do this. But he’s got to play.”
The last line came with a sly smile as Self sat inside the Sprint Center late Saturday night.
Kansas, 7-3, snapped a two-game losing streak after consecutive setbacks at Colorado and Florida. And Self is not the type of coach who would sabotage something great in the present to hold onto Embiid for a little more time in the future. But if you had watched Embiid on the floor of the Sprint Center, grabbing six rebounds, blocking four shots, and doing most of the damage during a dominating second half, you can’t blame Self if the thought crossed his mind.
“I wanted it bad,” Embiid said. “I wanted to play.”
It had been a long, grueling month for Kansas, the kind of stretch that could leave doubts in the mind of any young basketball player.
Before Saturday, KU had suffered three losses in four games, played five games away from home, and traveled about 7,000 miles round trip since its last home game, a blowout victory over Towson on Nov. 22.
More than anything, Self kept repeating a similar line: His young Jayhawks just needed a little confidence, and maybe that would help them break out of their recent downturn.
On Saturday night inside the Sprint Center, the Jayhawks siphoned all the confidence they needed from Embiid, who shook off two early fouls and scored nine points during a 17-9 run in the opening minutes of the second half.
“They wanted to throw me the ball and then score,” Embiid said. “So that’s what I needed to do.
Embiid’s night supplemented a resurgent performance from Perry Ellis, who finished with 21 points and nine rebounds. But it was Embiid who left the Sprint Center onlookers in a momentary state of awe when he pulled off a hesitating, shimmy move that could only be described as Hakeem Olajuwon’s “Dream Shake.”
“You could see my facial expression when I was on the court,” said freshman guard Wayne Selden, who added 10 points. “You see him do it every day in practice, and I finally liked when he brought it to the game.”
It wasn’t the only moment that lifted Self’s spirits. Freshman swingman Andrew Wiggins finished with 11 points, including 10 in the first half. And junior point guard Naadir Tharpe, who replaced freshman Frank Mason in the starting lineup, finished with eight points and nine assists, finally looking like the steady veteran that Kansas needs.
“He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that (I was) disappointed in him,” Self said. “Not in his play as much, but in the ownership and how he’s helping the other guys. He knows. And that was the thing I’ve been trying to beat into him. And I think he responded really well.”
It had been more than two decades since a Kansas team had lost four of five — you had to go back to Roy Williams’ first season in 1988-89 — and this KU team wasn’t ready to be hit with that distinction. But if you ask Self if he’s happy that he scheduled as tough as he did, he’s still not quite sure.
The Jayhawks haven’t played a game at Allen Fieldhouse in more than three weeks — even if the Sprint Center did provide a nice homecourt advantage. But for one night, Kansas finally notched a confidence-building victory against a solid team. And the rest of the country got a glimpse of what Embiid can mean for the future.
“I’d rather get confidence from beating good teams,” Self said.
“But if you’re not going to be them, I’d rather get confidence from winning. And we put ourselves in a position where obviously that wasn’t going to be as easy to do with young kids.”