Kansas Blueprint to Win the 2014 NCAA Championship
It's amazing the difference a few weeks can make.
It wasn't even a month ago—after a statement 84-55 victory over then-No. 19 Texas—that Bill Self's Kansas Jayhawks looked to be hitting on all cylinders. There was chatter about not just making a deep run in this year's NCAA tournament, but of possibly being one of the favorites to win it all.
But the Jayhawks (24-9, 14-4 Big 12) will enter the field of 68 limping and a little hobbled—literally.
They've lost three of their last five games, they got bounced by Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament semifinals and don't know when, or even if, they'll get back their stud big man Joel Embiid in time for him to have any tournament impact.
Suddenly, the once-peaking Jayhawks have the look of a team that could be headed for upset city pretty early.
They're the No. 2 seed in the South Region and will need to face the No. 15 Eastern Kentucky Colonels in the second round. EKU has been picked as a possible Cinderella by many in the know, and if the Jayhawks get by that game, a showdown with New Mexico or Stanford looms for a shot at the Sweet 16.
But dismiss them at your own peril. They're still Kansas, one of the premier programs in the nation, and they have tons of talent.
Can they win it all? That remains to be seen.
But it’s a definite possibility, and here's their blueprint.
Hope for a Healthy Joel Embiid
It's impossible to overstate Joel Embiid's importance to Kansas' success going forward into the NCAA tournament. They're just not the same team without his interior presence, and we can't sugarcoat it, if he doesn't get back, they won't be cutting down the nets at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Embiid is currently sidelined with a stress fracture in his back.
If you've only followed the Jayhawks in passing this season, it's understandable that you'd view Andrew Wiggins—all but assured of being a lottery selection in this year's NBA draft—as the motor who makes the team run.
And Wiggins is extremely important, but if you've watched this team closely, it's hard to deny that Embiid adds an element that's virtually irreplaceable.
In 28 games, the 7'0" center from Cameroon averaged over 11 points, eight rebounds and nearly three blocks per game. That last figure is particularly important, and without Embiid patrolling the paint, the Jayhawks cannot hope to compete against teams with physical big men, like Patric Young of Florida, who they could potentially see in the Elite Eight.
Embiid's defensive impact is clear and was often decisive for Kansas this season.
In games where Embiid played 20 or more minutes, per Brian Hamilton, opposing teams shot just 41.9 percent from the floor on two-point attempts.
By contrast, in games where he played less than 20 minutes, Kansas' opponents' two-point shooting percentage ballooned up to 46.6 percent. That's a testament to Embiid's paint presence and ability to alter shots and force teams to take lower-percentage attempts from the outside.
And the lack of his presence was on full display in Kansas' losses in its regular-season finale and in the Big 12 semifinals. In those games West Virginia (51.4) and Iowa State (52.2) each connected on more than 50 percent of their two-point shots.
That's a huge problem, and only Embiid can solve it. Hopefully for him New Mexico—with a dominant big man of its own—doesn't send his team home before he has a chance to get back.
Perry Ellis Needs to Score
The Jayhawks have plenty of scoring options. That's not—and never has been—their problem.
But again, most of the pressure to score will fall on the shoulders of Wiggins—the good and bad of being a stud player coveted by all 30 NBA teams—but the real X-factor on offense could be sophomore forward Perry Ellis.
The 6'8" forward will be making his second tournament appearance for Kansas, and he's definitely improved his game from a season ago. His scoring, rebounding and field-goal shooting averages are way up, and he will be looked at to take some of the scoring pressure off of the freshman Wiggins.
If Ellis, who averaged over 13 points and six boards a game, can up his average a bit in the tournament, the Jayhawks could be an even more dangerous offensive team.
Kansas won seven of the eight games in which Ellis scored 20 or more points, and that included impressive neutral-site victories over Duke and New Mexico, a home win over Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State and a road tilt at Oklahoma.
The lone game they lost, 94-83 to the Cyclones in the Big 12 semifinals, had more to do with defense—the lack of Embiid—than scoring.
Ellis needs to score the ball with consistency, and he's more than capable. In Kansas’ regular-season victories, he averaged over 14 points a game, but in losses just over 10.
The Jayhawks need some big numbers from their stud forward, and if they get them, watch out.
Andrew Wiggins Must Remain Consistent
The college basketball world revolves around Wiggins, the 19-year-old Canadian product, who is a virtual lock to find his way into the top of the NBA draft this season.
And you can't really argue. He's been tremendous, averaging over 17 points and six rebounds a game with the microscope on him for every minute of every single game. He's faced a ton of pressure in his freshman—and likely lone—college basketball season, and for the most part, he's responded to the challenge.
But he's never played a game in the NCAA tournament before, and that's where the real pressure begins.
For all his strengths, Wiggins has a bad tendency to be very streaky. He has the ability to get hot and take over a game, but he also suffers from long stretches where you don't even know he's on the floor.
Luckily for him, the Jayhawks have lots of offensive options available to pick up the slack, but without their interior presence—Embiid—it's questionable whether or not they could survive a game where Wiggins can't find his shooting touch.
With Embiid sidelined, the Jayhawks aren't just losing his 11 points and eight rebounds, they're also losing all the points he keeps off the board.
That means that Kansas will need to score more to compete against the bigger, better teams in the field, and Wiggins is crucial to that effort.
He'll need to be everything advertised and more if he wants to become a champion before heading to the NBA.
Tarik Black Needs to Step Up with Quality Defensive Minutes
It's time for somebody else to step it up in the frontcourt.
With Embiid on the shelf for an undetermined amount of time, and every game potentially the last one, Kansas will need some of its remaining bigger bodies to step up their game on defense.
Tarik Black (4.9 points and 3.8 boards per game this season) has done a nice job off the bench for Kansas this season, and the Memphis transfer will be expected to do even more in the absence of Embiid for likely, at least, the first weekend.
He hasn't been front and center this season, largely because of Embiid's dominant presence, but he has plenty of tournament experience and should have plenty opportunities to step it up this time around.
And the Jayhawks need him. Black is 6'9" and runs about 260 pounds. He's got a big body, and he needs to bang around in the paint, force opposing players to alter their shots and snag some more rebounds.
In other words, he needs to try and hold down the fort and fill the huge shoes of the man who's missing.
That will become especially crucial in a potential third-round game with No. 7 New Mexico.
Experience is an underrated factor come tournament time, and Black certainly has enough of that to help his team make a deep run. He's been here before and knows what it takes.
Naadir Tharpe Needs to Be a Leader on Offense
Point guard inconsistency was a big problem for the Jayhawks this season, and they'll need someone to step up and lead the team on the floor if they hope to get through a loaded region that includes Florida, Syracuse and UCLA.
Naadir Tharpe needs to be that guy.
The junior guard led Kansas in assists this season, averaging over five per game, but he just wasn't consistent enough to rely upon. He disappeared for long stretches in crucial spots, and in those games, the Jayhawks struggled.
He was particularly inconsistent/bad down the stretch when the Jayhawks dropped three of their last five games.
In those contests, Tharpe averaged only seven points a game on an atrocious 29 percent shooting. That's not good enough, and to his credit, he knows it.
Tharpe gathered his teammates at practice following a 92-86 loss at West Virginia on Mar. 8, per The Topeka Capital Journal, explaining that he understood he needed to be a better leader on the court and focus more.
Unfortunately, that message didn't seem to take hold. But it will have to for the Jayhawks to emerge from a very deep South Region.
Get Through the First Weekend
Facing the Eastern Kentucky Colonels (24-9, 11-5 OVC) is both a blessing and a curse for the Jayhawks.
Bleacher Report's Thad Novak ranked them No. 6 on his list of the teams most likely to make a Cinderella run in this year's field, and they have the capability of getting hot from outside and crashing Kansas' party in the South Region.
The Colonels are a very proficient team from three-point range, and they run a somewhat unusual four-guard lineup. They don't really have a big man for Kansas to worry about, and that's got to be music to Bill Self's ears with Embiid still on the shelf.
If the Jayhawks can bump Eastern Kentucky from the field, they'll face either No. 7 New Mexico or No. 10 Stanford for a chance at the Sweet 16.
Kansas defeated New Mexico earlier in the season—an 80-63 victory in Kansas City on Dec. 14—but they did so with Embiid in the fold.
Tarik Black will need to come up strong if Embiid can't get back in time for that game, because Cameron Bairstow—24 points and six boards in their first meeting—is a handful.
The most recent reports, per Eric Prisbell of USA Today, have Embiid out through at least the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Kansas needs to weather the early storm and get through the opening weekend, or nothing else will matter.
The Road to Arlington
Kansas has a tough road to hoe in order to reach Arlington and the 2014 Final Four.
A first-round matchup with Eastern Kentucky seems to shake out favorably for the Jayhawks. The Colonels are a team that relies on its guards, and they need to be shooting the lights out from three in order to be a real threat to an elite team.
Wiggins and Co. should have little problem, even without Embiid, of advancing to third-round action.
But that's where it begins to get a little dicey.
The New Mexico Lobos (27-6, 15-3 MWC) come into the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the nation. They've won nine of their last 10, won the Mountain West Conference championship over San Diego State on Saturday night and have a big man that could give the Jayhawks trouble.
Kansas beat New Mexico by 17 points earlier in the season, but in that game, even with Embiid in the lineup, 6'9" senior forward Cameron Bairstow torched them for 24 points.
If Embiid isn't back, Black is going to need to bang around with Bairstow, or the Jayhawks could head home early.
This might be going out on a bit of a limb, but the Jayhawks should get enough from their guards to outlast the Lobos in a close one.
Syracuse would be up next in the Sweet 16, by which point Embiid should hopefully be back, and they'll take out the Orange to advance to the regional finals, where they'll fall to Patric Young and the Florida Gators.
Prediction: Lose to Florida in the Elite Eight.