Kansas City, Mo. — Injured Kansas University freshman center Joel Embiid stood behind the three-point line and lofted a series of three-point shots during a low-key 45-minute shootaround on Wednesday afternoon in Sprint Center.
The 7-footer from Cameroon, who has been ruled out of the 2014 Big 12 Tournament and is considered a longshot to play in next week’s opening games of the NCAAs because of a stress fracture in his back, also rebounded for teammates and even bent to pick up basketballs on the court at various junctures.
“He wasn’t out there warming up. He was just out there jacking around,” KU coach Bill Self said with a smile, asked about Embiid’s work at practice. “Nothing has changed,” Self added. “That doesn’t mean he couldn’t play (first weekend of NCAAs). I think the percentages are he probably won’t. We’ll play him when the doctors say, and when his body is ready to play. I’m still confident as others are that’s going to happen. To be real candid, we may have to advance for it to happen. Nothing has changed on that front.”
So the Jayhawks return to where they started the season — with senior Tarik Black starting at center — during today’s 2 p.m. Big 12 quarterfinal against Oklahoma State.
“He needs to be good,” Self said of the 6-9, 260-pound Black, who averages 4.8 points and 3.3 boards while logging 12.2 minutes a game. The Memphis transfer has started 11 games and come off the bench in 18.
“We brought him here to be in this moment. I’m excited that he’s with us. I’m really pleased at how he’s played,” Self said.
Black said, “I believe him,” when told of Self’s comment of bringing him in for his senior season for this type of postseason scenario. “I’ve been contributing to this team since I got here. I’m going to continue to do the same thing, be effective for the team.”
Black said the players’ expectations haven’t changed with Embiid out of action.
“We’re definitely still, in my mind, one of the top teams in the country. We’re still a contender for it all,” Black said. “We haven’t thrown anything out the window at all.
“There’s a lot of excitement in our locker room. We’re here to play basketball. The young fellas are ready to get out here and go.”
That includes frosh Embiid, who will sit on the bench and cheer his teammates, who enter today’s game with a 23-8 record compared to OSU’s 21-11 mark.
“We all talk to Jo Jo to try to keep his head up. He’s been keeping ours up. Jo Jo has a great feel about him, running around laughing,” Black said. “Keep our heads up and keep playing. That’s what we know we have to go out and do.”
KU junior point guard Naadir Tharpe said that without Embiid, “we have to make sure everybody is much more locked in defensively. He protects the rim so well.”
Tharpe said the Jayhawks could make a statement of sorts with three victories in Sprint Center in as many days.
“It would show we can still be a highly ranked team without Joel,” Tharpe said, “but we have to show it first. We can’t just talk about it. We have to make sure through this tournament everybody plays the way they can.”
Tharpe said he’s had conversations with Self about his own play since the West Virginia game.
“Coach and I have talked about it ... guys look up to me more. I have to make sure I’m much more vocal throughout the Big 12 tournament and NCAA,” Tharpe said.
“If we don’t come to play each and every game, we’ve shown we can be beat. We’re going to need everybody, need myself to gather the troops. Coach always talks about, ‘Gather the troops.’ As long as I do that and everybody comes with focus we can be the team we were during the regular season (14-4 runaway Big 12 champs).”
Embiid didn’t speak with the media on Wednesday, but Self did face more questions about the big man’s stress fracture.
Of an ESPN report prior to Monday’s release of a second opinion that Self was “100 percent sure” Embiid would play this season, Self said: “I never said he 100 percent would play next weekend. I told him (ESPN reporter) and he would confirm, ‘I’m 100 percent in my heart he’d play in the postseason.’ That was the quote given to him.”
As far as not revealing Embiid had a stress fracture until Monday night, Self said: “Why would I tell anybody what the specific injury is? That would not be very smart. The thing about it ... there was a media member that somehow knew of the injury and what it was. Why hide it if you think it could possibly (be revealed by media)? I would never offer information up about anything like that. I don’t think anybody would do that. It’s not to manipulate any situation. It’s to look out for the student-athlete.”
Asked about a report that the NCAA Tournament committee would ask KU for an update on Embiid’s condition in advance of seeding teams, Self said: “I am not on the committee. I don’t know what their criteria is. The whole thing is, you (meida) are assuming things won’t go well this weekend. We can play well this weekend without question, then it wouldn’t matter one way or another. You’d think it (seeding) would include your body of work because that’s what you do, you play your season. I also was a 7-seed (at Tulsa) playing Cincinnati as a 2-seed when Kenyon (Martin, Cincy) broke his leg. They were the best team in the country and dropped a seed line. I’m not sure this year it matters a ton, because there are a lot of good teams and potential matchups.”