Around 8:00 CST on Sunday, March 9, 2014, the sky came falling down for Kansas basketball fans. Joel Embiid, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the most improved player Bill Self has ever had, is out. Not just out for a regular season game against TCU or Texas Tech or West Virginia, he’s out for the Big 12 Tournament (which is very valuable to Kansas this year, unlike past years), and for at least the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Immediately, some of the Jayhawk faithful thought “it’s over.” A year in which Self brought in the best recruiting class KU has ever had, a year in which KU challenged themselves with – according to one bracketologist – the “toughest schedule in the last 20 years”, a year in which KU was as good as any team in America when healthy, is all going to come to a disappointing end and KU isn’t going to make it to Dallas for the Final Four. However, when you really think about it…is all that true?
This year more so than others, it has been talked about that college basketball is as wide open as ever. Florida, Arizona, and Wichita State will be one seeds in the tournament, three teams that are a combined 91-5. Now, they are all very good teams, anyone that has watched them this year can see that. However, of those 91 wins, only seven came against teams that are currently ranked in this week’s Associated Press poll. To be clear, this is not to discount what those teams have done this year, all three are very good teams that could cut down the nets on April 7th. However, do we know how good they truly are? With only 13% of those 91 wins coming against ranked teams – the type of teams they would be playing in the tournament – we don’t know how good they really are. So, that asks the question…why can’t Kansas make a run, even without their unanimous selection for the Big 12 All-Defensive Team?
Sure, they lost one their most valuable players. Sure, they struggle on the defensive end. Sure, they are lacking a solid point guard they can trust. But what team this year doesn’t have some sort of unfavorable trait? If there was ever a year when a team that just lost their biggest defensive presence on defense can make a run, this is it. With a player that just scored a career-high 41 points in a losing effort in which he looked like a guy that knew he had to take over and put the team on his back, which hasn’t been seen much – if at all – this year, this Kansas team can do it. Are they the favorite? No. Is it a guarantee they will get out of the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament? No. Unlike other years for KU, the NCAA Tournament is going to be a struggle and not much is going to come easy. But, as KU fans know from the likes of a 1997 Arizona team, a 1998 Rhode Island team, a 2005 Bucknell team, a 2006 Bradley team, a 2010 Northern Iowa team, a 2011 VCU team, and a 2013 Michigan team…anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament – that is, after all, why they call it March Madness. Why can’t a depleted KU team be the surprising Final Four team this year? They have the talent, they have the coach, and they have a player who showed he can take over a game. In 1988, people thought KU – as a 6-seed – was an extreme long shot to make the Final Four. Then, Danny Manning and Larry Brown carried the team to not only the Final Four, but also a National Championship. If that KU team can do it, why can’t this one?