Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid’s back costs Kansas their shot at greatness

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Injuries have taken their toll on college basketball more this season than in any season that I can remember, especially when it comes to those teams that are chasing Final Fours and national titles.

Michigan’s Mitch McGary had back issues all offseason and finally decided to get surgery, effectively ending his season, back in December. Arizona lost Brandon Ashley for the season when he broke his foot in January. Michigan State ended up as a No. 4 seed in large part because their four stars spent the season bouncing in and out of the lineup. Oklahoma State center Michael Cobbins ruptured his achilles tendon, leaving the Cowboys with a severe lack of depth in their front court.

Most recently, Iowa State suffered a massive blow when Georges Niang, their third-leading scorer and one of their most important pieces due to his ability to create mismatches for opponents, broke his foot in their opening round NCAA tournament game.

It’s a shame, really.

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Four of those teams were in the preseason top ten, and the only one that wasn’t, Iowa State, was in the top ten as we entered the tournament.

Four of those teams entered the NCAA tournament as national title contenders, and the only one that didn’t, Oklahoma State, was a trendy Final Four sleeper.

But none of them compare to the importance of Kansas missing Joel Embiid.

For those that don’t know, Embiid was the projected by many as the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft for much of the season, only losing his grip on that consensus tag when a stress fracture in his spine started acting up. He aggravated the injury in a fall three weeks back against Oklahoma State, sat out the last two games of the regular season, missed the Big 12 tournament and was not available this weekend in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

And without Embiid, the Jayhawks struggled against No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky before ultimately getting bounced by No. 10 seed Stanford on Sunday afternoon.

You may not agree, but I have no problem saying this: Kansas would not have lost to Stanford if Joel Embiid was in the lineup.

You don’t need to be the second coming of John Wooden to figure out that Kansas was nothing more than good without Embiid in the lineup.

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He was their anchor defensively, a shot blocker that cleaned up a lot of the mess caused by the mediocre perimeter defense this Kansas team had a habit of playing. He was their best low-post scorer, a guy that could get a bucket with his back to the basket and had the length and athleticism to be an option at the rim when the Kansas guards drove the lane. He brought a toughness and a tenacity to this group that some of their other stars seemed to lack; there were a number of times this season where Embiid was charged with a flagrant or a technical for emotional outbursts, and while those can hurt a team in the moment, that passion is not a bad thing for a team to have on the floor.

And if that wasn’t enough, Stanford just so happened to have the kind of personnel that could take advantage of Embiid’s absence. Johnny Dawkins has a seemingly endless string of seven-footers on his bench, all of whom were talented enough offensively to create problems for the suddenly-undersized Jayhawks. There’s a reason Tarik Black fouled out. There’s a reason that Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor were a combined 4-for-18 from the floor, the majority of which came around the rim.

That’s not the entire reason that the Jayhawks stumbled through Sunday’s loss. Andrew Wiggins finished with as many turnovers as points and only managed to get six shots up. Other than Conner Frankamp and Tarik Black, the Jayhawks shot 9-for-42 from the floor and just 1-for-9 from three.

Those numbers aren’t good by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not trying to argue that they are.

But it is worth noting that despite all of those bad basketball, Kansas lost by just three.

Embiid would have been the difference.

And if he were healthy — or if Kansas had been able to make it through to the Sweet 16, as Embiid told reporters after the game he would have been back on Thursday — we would have had a chance to see a team with potentially the top two picks in the NBA Draft try to make a run through the NCAA tournament.

Instead, Kansas is heading home.

And with all due respect to Johnny Dawkins and his Stanford team, that’s a shame.

At their best, at their healthiest, the Jayhawks are as probably good as anyone in the country.

But we’ll never get the chance to see them prove it.

No. 14 Cal goes 0-2 in Las Vegas Invitational

Jaylen Brown
AP Photo/Ben Margot
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After midnight on the east coast on Thanksgiving, No. 14 Cal blew a 15 point second half lead against San Diego State, allowing the Aztecs to use a 30-6 run to put away the game and advance to the final of the Las Vegas Invitational. That’s the same San Diego State team had scored 43 points in a loss to Arkansas-Little Rock last week.

Not 24 hours later, the Golden Bears were shredded defensively by the Richmond Spiders, losing 94-90 in the consolation game of a four-team tournament they were considered to be the heavy favorite in.

It’s a disappointing two-game stretch for Cal, who entered the season as a Pac-12 favorite and had looked the part for the first four games of the season.

And the issue appears to be on the defensive end of the floor.

Richmond is a good Atlantic 10 team. Terry Allen and Marshall Wood are high-major big men, Shawn’Dre Jones is a jitterbug at the point and Chris Mooney runs a Princeton-esque system that is very difficult to prepare for without a day in-between games. So it’s not really surprising that the Spiders gave Cal a fight.

But 94 points?

On the heels of giving up 44 points in the second half against the offensively-challenged Aztecs?

That’s a problem, one that I’m sure that Cuonzo Martin is going to address this week in practice. Martin has managed to put together a roster that is build for small-ball, with four talented perimeter players surrounding a first round pick in the post. But that’s not the style that he’s known for. Martin played his college ball at Purdue in the Gene Keady days. He cut his teeth as a head coach at Missouri State in the Missouri Valley. His team’s at Tennessee were known for being tough and physical defensively.

That’s how Martin coaches, which is part of the reason Cal had such hype entering the year.

The talents of Tyrone Wallace, Jaylen Brown, Ivan Rabb, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews on a team with a coach that gets teams to defend the way Martin does? It’s no surprise that pundits would be optimistic.

But as of now, they have some work to do defensively if they want to live up to that hype.

Tyler Ulis injured as No. 1 Kentucky beats South Florida

Tyler Ulis, Ky Howard
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MIAMI (AP) Jamal Murray had 21 points and No. 1 Kentucky scored the final 15 points of the first half on the way to beating South Florida 84-63 in the HoopHall Miami Invitational on Friday.

Skal Labissiere added 17 points for the Wildcats (6-0), who led by as many as 31. Charles Matthews scored 11 points and Isaiah Briscoe finished with seven assists for Kentucky, now a winner of 37 consecutive regular-season games and 39 in a row against unranked opponents.

Chris Perry scored 14 points for USF (1-5), which has lost 18 consecutive games against teams ranked in the Top 25. Jaleel Cousins added 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting, and Jahmal McMurray scored 11 points for the Bulls.

Kentucky played the second half without starting guard Tyler Ulis, who departed with a right elbow injury after getting hurt while fighting for a ball loose on the floor.

Kentucky announced after the game that the injury was a hyperextension of the elbow and that he will be day-to-day.

The Bulls were within 27-21 with 6 minutes left in the first half after McMurray banked in a 3-pointer only a few feet away from where John Calipari was standing, and the look of anguish on the Kentucky coach’s face was clear.

It didn’t last long.

The Wildcats scored on seven of their next nine possessions and the game was over by halftime, Kentucky going into the break with a 42-21 lead.

It was a reunion for plenty of people on both benches. Calipari squared off with his former assistant Orlando Antigua, now in his second year leading USF. Antigua’s staff includes another former Calipari assistant in Rod Strickland, plus former Kentucky basketball staff members Mike Malone and Dominic Lombardi.

So the staffs have plenty of familiarity. On the court, there was plenty of disparity. Kentucky finished with a commanding 23-6 edge in points off turnovers and finished with 16 assists to the Bulls’ six.