The second-seeded Kansas Jayhawks anxiously await the return of big man Joel Embiid and will once again try and weather the storm when they meet the no. 10 seed Stanford Cardinal in the third round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday. The 7-0 freshman is slated to return to the team during next week’s round of 16 after sitting out the better part of three weeks with a back injury and missing the last five games.
The biggest concern for the Jayhawks coming into the tournament was whether they could survive long enough for Embiid to rejoin the team. They passed their first test with flying colors in a commanding 80-69 second round victory over scrappy fifteenth-seeded Eastern Kentucky. Kansas shot a lights-out 60.4 percent from the floor and used stingy defense to hold the Colonels to 38.6 percent shooting. But it was the standout play of sophomore forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor that more than made up for Embiid’s absence. With 31 points and 27 rebounds between them, the two dominated the paint and were a big reason why the Jayhawks’ finished with a massive 43-19 advantage on the boards.
Stanford, meanwhile, merely outlasted New Mexico 58-53 in its second round NCAA Tournament matchup. Both sides struggled to find the basket, as the Cardinal narrowly edged the Lobos from the floor 38.8 percent to 36.5 percent and connected on 8 of 15 from outside the arc to New Mexico’s 4 of 21. Stanford led wire to wire and by as many as sixteen in the first half, but New Mexico stormed back behind a 13-4 run to trim the lead to 32-27 at the break. The Lobos were able to keep it close in the second half, constantly threatening the lead and even tying the game at one point. The Cardinal kept in front, however, and sealed the victory with clutch free throw shooting down the stretch.
Bill Self and his band of budding Jayhawks may have been the most heavily scrutinized team this college basketball season, but with good reason. When you start five freshman, as Self did in the beginning of the season, criticism is sure to follow. Particularly when several of those freshman are top recruits Andrew Wiggins and Embiid. Wiggins was the high man against eastern Kentucky and lately seems to have realized how instrumental he is to the success of the Jayhawks. Without Embiid in the lineup, there is just no one else to lean on.
Stanford’s chances at upsetting Kansas in the NCAA tournament’s round of 32 appear to hinge on the play of Chasson Randle. The junior G, who averages 18.9 ppg, reached double-figures in scoring in all but two games this season and hit 30 or more three times. The Cardinal bigs, 6-11 Stefan Nastic and 6-10 Dwight Powell, will need to come up with more low post production in this one. Against New Mexico, Nastic had 10 points and 5 rebounds and Powell had 3 points and 4 boards. And a hole in the middle is likely to be the only Jayhawk hole to exploit. Kansas forwards Perry Ellis and Tarik Black have done a good job collectively filling in for Embiid, but that’s likely to change as the level of NCAA tournament competition rises.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat
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