St. Louis Wearing a crimson and blue Kansas Jayhawk cap, T-shirt and sweats, Joel Embiid hopped off a big, black bus in back of the Hyatt Regency at the Arch hotel just before 6 p.m. Wednesday.
The 7-foot freshman from Cameroon, who carried a duffel bag in his left hand and wore a set of headphones muting the sounds of a handful of autograph seekers, looked just like the rest of KU’s basketball players, who arrived well in advance of today’s NCAA Tournament shootaround and Friday’s second-round game at Scottrade Center.
There’s one major difference between Embiid and his KU pals, however.
Embiid, the Jayhawks’ only injured scholarship player entering the postseason, is expected to miss this weekend’s action, which begins with a 3:10 p.m. game against Eastern Kentucky on Friday. Winner of the KU-EKU game will meet either Stanford or New Mexico at a yet-to-be-determined time Sunday in Scottrade Center, with the winner of that game advancing to the Sweet 16 the following Thursday in Memphis.
“He’s not going to play this weekend. (It’s the) same as we’ve said all along. He’s not going to play,” KU coach Bill Self said of Embiid, who has a stress fracture in his lower back. “I’m not saying there couldn’t be some miraculous act occur, but we’re certainly not planning on that, nor expecting it.
“Nothing’s changed,” Self added. “He’s doing really well, but we’ve told him we were not going to put him on the practice floor until he does really well with the rehab. That’s what the doctors have told us, and that’s been the game plan all along. So he’s not far away from being out there in some form or fashion, but probably not contact (drills), at least for a while.”
Excellent practices: The Jayhawks practiced in Allen Fieldhouse on Wednesday before driving to St. Louis.
“We had a pretty good week. I would say not our best week of practice for the year, (but) certainly we got better,” Self said. “I think we’ve got a lot of energy. We were able to keep guys off their feet for the most part.
“I think we’re OK,” he added of the squad’s frame of mind. “It hasn’t been one of those weeks where Monday was so intense and Tuesday was so intense. We’ve talked some. We’ve practiced short, for the most part. I’ve wanted guys to be fresh and off their feet as much as possible. We’ll get into the meetings and serious discussion tonight.
“I think they (players) are pretty amped, and they’ll be ready to go. Young teams ... sometimes when you talk about it too much, I think it can be a little overboard. But with these guys, you never know how they are going to react. I couldn’t tell you how we are going to play five minutes before tip ever because it’s a hard group to read.”
Self said practices have been short compared to early in the season.
“When guys are ready and guys are focused and guys are concentrating, you can get through everything in an hour, 15 minutes; an hour, 10 minutes. If they are not, it takes an hour-and-a-half, hour, 40 minutes. Certainly the game plans are short every day. Tomorrow we’ll shoot at Scottrade Center. Before that, we may practice 45 minutes. We won’t go much longer than that,” Self noted Wednesday.
The Jayhawks’ shootaround is scheduled for 2:15 to 2:55 p.m. today at Scottrade Center.
In Missouri: Self was asked if he likes playing so close to Lawrence.
“To me, St. Louis isn’t exactly close to home. If it was in Kansas City or Wichita or something like that, it’d be a little bit different,” he said. “Somebody has to make an effort to get here, being 41⁄2 hours. I like the fact the kids (Jayhawks) can get away. I like the fact their college friends can’t get here near as easy. Still yet, if they want to make a serious effort to get here, they can. This is about perfect for us from a distance from home.”
Of St. Louis, Self recalled: “We’ve had some fun over here. We got beat in the Elite Eight game in the (Edward Jones) dome about 10 years ago, 11 years ago.”
Georgia Tech stopped KU, 79-71, in the Elite Eight of the 2004 NCAAs.
“A couple years ago, we had a lot of fun over here,” he added of KU beating North Carolina State, 60-57, and North Carolina, 80-67, en route to a berth in the 2012 Final Four. “This will be interesting with all three state schools represented over here,” he added of Kansas State and Wichita State also playing in Scottrade Center.
“I would think the media attention and the bragging rights on the streets will probably be at an all-time high.”
Demand for tickets will be fierce.
“We travel well. K-State will travel. Wichita State will travel. Kentucky travels as well as anybody,” Self said of Wildcat fans also to congregate in St. Louis for the K-State game. “That’s not counting the other four teams that are here. I would think this will probably be as hot a ticket (demand) as we’ve had for any first-round site, with maybe the exception last year since we were playing in our home city (Kansas City’s Sprint Center) for the most part. K-State was there as well. This should be a fun weekend for everybody. I guess the weather is going to somewhat cooperate. It should make it interesting and a good time,” Self said.
No late game this time: Self likes the fact KU plays an afternoon game Friday.
“That’s one thing I thought about as soon as it (NCAA pairings) came out. I said, ‘We’re going to play in the afternoon because they are going to have Kentucky play at night.’ That’s just the way the fan base and that kind of stuff would be,” Self said. “K-State and Wichita State will obviously be games of serious interest that have national implication, so I thought we’d play in the afternoon. Nothing could make me happier if we are able to advance. It seems to me you play that 8:30 (p.m.) game Friday night, you turn around and play Sunday early morning. Sometimes to me that’s a struggle getting guys rested.”
Lyle to Oregon: JaQuan Lyle, a 6-5 senior shooting guard from Huntington (W.Va.) Prep, who was recruited by KU and Oklahoma State for a time, on Wednesday committed to Oregon. He chose the Ducks over Memphis.
Tough foe: Self has watched a lot of tape on No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky this week.
“Eastern Kentucky can do a lot of things well. They turn you over. They play primarily man, but they’ll sprinkle in some zone and 1-3-1, and we’ve had issues with that at times,” Self said. “They shoot the three as well as anybody. They’ve got eight guys that can shoot it. We’ll have to really defend the line. To do that you need to keep the ball out of the paint. Your ball-screen defense has to be a lot better than it was against Iowa State (last Friday).”
Longevity: Self was asked on the John Feinstein CBS radio show this week if he will stick around long enough to vie for some college coaching records.
“I think I’d walk away when I don’t have the fire in the belly or the energy it takes to keep your team at the highest competitive level,” Self said. “I always thought it’d be nice to walk away whenever that is. It could be 10 years, whatever it is, walk away when you are on top. Not too many people get an opportunity to do so.
“I do feel this, guys can extend it (career) longer ... whether Jim (Boeheim, Syracuse) or Mike (Krzyzewski, Duke) ... they have as much fire now as they’ve ever had. I hope I’m still that way,” added Self, 51. “When I start to lose that and can tell the energy is not there to keep the program at the same level, I think that’s when it’s time to probably walk away and try to get my 18 (golf handicap) down to a 14, which will not be very easy to do.”