Maybe Fred Hoiberg was right. Maybe Joel Embiid was the best player in college basketball. Hoiberg seems to be right about a lot of things, such as how to get a team peaking for the postseason.
The coach whose Iowa State Cyclones enter the Sweet 16 riding a six-game winning streak made that statement about Embiid after KU’s 77-70 victory on Jan. 13 in Ames, Iowa. Embiid totaled 16 points, nine rebounds, two assists, five blocked shots and seven turnovers in that one, a great deal of activity for a 7-footer who played 28 minutes and fouled out.
Embiid’s combination of size, agility, footwork, soft touch and shot-blocking ability enabled him to change the game in so many areas.
Nothing about the way Kansas University played without the 7-footer disputed Hoiberg’s opinion.
In the final six games, after an MRI revealed Embiid to have a stress fracture of the lower back, KU was just another team, not one worthy of a No. 2 seed, even though center Tarik Black was the team’s best postseason performer. Embiid paired with Black would have been too much for Stanford to handle.
KU went 3-3 after the stress-fracture diagnosis, with victories at home against Texas Tech, in Sprint Center in overtime vs. Oklahoma State and by 11 points against Eastern Kentucky in St. Louis. The losses came at West Virginia, in Sprint Center to Iowa State and in St. Louis to a 10th-seeded Stanford team that demonstrates the slim margin between getting fired and gaining the respect and admiration of the entire university and alumni base.
Sixth-year Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins reportedly was told before the season that if he did not get his team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time, he would be replaced. Now, if Dawkins’ team can defeat No. 11 seed Dayton, he will be an Elite Eight coach from an elite university.
With such fine lines defining March, it pays to enjoy the journey, which for KU included a 10th consecutive Big 12 title and three first-year players who in different ways were equally entertaining to watch develop: freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Embiid, and Black, a senior who transferred in from Memphis and did everything in his power to extend KU’s season back to his hometown, site of the South Regional.