So, when Joel Embiid isn’t elbowing somebody in the noggin’ or pulling somebody to the floor, the Kansas big man and physical specimen is something to behold.
On the first Big Monday feature, a Kansas-Iowa State game selected to lead off the series no doubt for the high level of both teams and the controversy surrounding last year’s Jayhawks victory at Hilton Coliseum, Embiid personally finished off the Cyclones with dominance on both ends of the floor that had to delight the score or so of NBA scouts in attendance.
The Jayhawks prevailed 77-70.
Spin moves on the baselines for baskets, backdowns, sweeps across the lane, and on the defensive end, not just the blocks at the rim and on the perimeter, though those changed the game in the second half. Embiid altered everything that came near him.
The undersized Cyclones couldn’t match up, and neither will most in college basketball. There may not be another one quite like Embiid, a 7-footer from Cameroon.
“I think Embiid is the best player in the country,” said Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, a former NBA player and executive.
“Did you see him play tonight?” Hoiberg said. “He’s huge, great length, can shoot, has incredible footwork and has been playing the game for about two years.”
Three, actually. But he is playing with goggles after getting poked in the eye in practice last week.
Kansas led by five when Embiid went on his personal 2-minute rampage, which included a defensive play that nobody was sure was a block or a steal. Call it a smother of Dustin Hogue. The sequence also included an assist, a block, two rebounds and two baskets.
When Embiid was finished, the Jayhawks had more than doubled the margin, and made enough free throws down the stretch to pull off its second straight league road victory.
But on Monday, as was the case in Saturday’s victory over Kansas State, the good with Embiid —16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks — was accompanied by a bad moment.
It happened less than 5 minutes into the game on the Kansas end of the floor. At first blush, Embiid reached out and pulled down DeAndre Kane at the intersection of the Iowa State bench and student section. No winning the case for Embiid here.
He didn’t get any sympathy on the Kansas bench either as he motioned to coach Bill Self an elbow, as if to explain and deflect fault. Self was having none of it.
The precise language required a lip reader, but the message was clear. Stop being a knucklehead.
“He got hit, and as he went down he reached out and grabbed (Kane), maybe for balance,” Self said.
Embiid received a technical foul, and by itself, no big deal.
But two days earlier, Embiid bought an ejection for planting a deliberate elbow to the head of Kansas State’s Nino Williams. Two days are a quick turn, but Embiid could have crammed this lesson: no cheap shots.
One incident can be explained as a temper tantrum. A second one — on a night when a veteran official crew was intent on not losing control early after last year’s officiating fiasco that got a couple of refs punished — could become a disturbing pattern.
But Embiid played his way through trouble and was one of several players who were magnificent. Andrew Wiggins came up with 17 points and 19 rebounds. Point guard Naadir Tharpe scored 23 and was terrific from the perimeter.
For Iowa State, the zero-for-nine performance of Georges Niang summed up the night as the Jayhawks moved to 3-0 in league play after ending the nonconference portion of the schedule with a clunker home loss to San Diego State.
And a trend continues.
Through its near-decade of consecutive Big 12 championships, much focus has gone to Kansas’ dominance at home, and deservedly so with winning streaks measured in years.
But away from Allen Fieldhouse is where Kansas has separated itself.
In the previous nine years, the Jayhawks have a better road record in league games (56-18 entering this season) than all Big 12 teams have at home except Texas (59-15).
In the title run, KU owns a winning or break-even record against all current or former league members in their building. At Ames, in one of the league’s most hostile environments, the Jayhawks have now won nine of 10.
It should be more of the same if Kansas continues to get this kind of play from Embiid, and less of the moments where his anger management slips.