The upcoming Big 12 tournament could prove to be a defensive nightmare for Kansas, a team attempting to win its seventh conference tournament title in the past nine seasons. The squad has struggled throughout conference play keeping opponents from the bucket — the Jayhawks are allowing 1.02 points per possession, the most a Bill Self-coached KU team has ever allowed — and according to ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, Joel Embiid, KU’s shotblocking and defensive rebounding force, might not play in Kansas City this week. Embiid, who spent the weekend in California consulting with a back specialist (the result of an injury suffered several weeks ago), will play at some point during the postseason, but coach Bill Self isn’t confirming which postseason tournament his freshman 7-footer will participate in: “I’m 100 percent optimistic he’ll be back. We just don’t know yet whether it will be this week or next week … the big thing is having him for the following week [for the NCAA tournament], and I don’t anticipate that being a problem.”
At this point, there is little reason to play Embiid at all before next Thursday or Friday (whichever day the Jayhawks’ opening round contest takes place). Even though Embiid managed to post some spectacular stat-lines while dealing with his back woes — six blocks in a win over Texas, eleven defensive boards in an Oklahoma loss — the injury has still clearly hampered Embiid. A conference tournament title is nice, but not as spectacular as another national title, and Self and Co. will need a fully healthy Embiid if the squad intends to make a run through April’s first weekend. According to data compiled by Group Stats, there isn’t a major PPP difference when Embiid takes to the bench — opponents score one PPP when Embiid is playing, and 1.03 when he isn’t — but he is still an integral element of KU’s defensive gameplan. KU lineups sans Embiid foul at a significantly higher rate (61 percent compared to 35 percent), and the center is a rare big that can not only post a nationally ranked block rate but also grab nearly 30 percent of opponents’ misses.
Even with four overall losses (and two in the last three games), Kansas has locked up a low seed, and there is no reason to risk a further injury. While the Jayhawks faithful will want another dominating performance in Kansas City, the safe, and smart, bet is for Embiid to wait another week.