If you want to know where it all went wrong for Kansas, all you have to do is look at the 7'0 giant from Cameroon sitting on their bench. Kansas went 3-3 in the six games that Joel Embiid missed at the of the season. They beat Texas Tech at home, got run out the gym by West Virginia on the road, squeaked by Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tourney than got blown out by Iowa State. In the NCAA Tourney, they won a surprisingly tight game over Eastern Kentucky and lost a pretty ugly game to Stanford.
More revealing than their struggles is who they were struggling against. West VA is a 17-16 team that lost in the first round of the NIT, Eastern Kentucky was a 15 seed and Stanford was a middling Pac-12 team that didn't have a PG. Without Embiid, Kansas showed what they really were - a rebuilding team that lost 4 seniors and a lottery pick (Ben McLemore) from their starting line-up and had only one senior (Tarik Black) in their rotation.
None of these problems looked as big when they had an agile 7'0 250 giant protecting the rim, cleaning the defensive glass and commanding a double team in the post. Embiid's stats were impressive - 11 points, 8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.5 blocks and 1 steal on 63% shooting - but they don't fully reveal his impact on the game. Embiid was the first player in every scouting report; he made the paint a no-fly zone on defense and he drew attention on offense, even when he wasn't scoring.
If Embiid was on the floor, the game against Stanford would have looked very different. Dwight Powell and Stefan Nastic, who combined for 25 points on 9-15 shooting, wouldn't have had as many easy looks around the rim. Powell, Nastic and Josh Huestis don't get 5 offensive rebounds. On offense, Kansas would have had a 7'0 who could play in the high post or the low post and see over the top of the defense. A few more made shots around the rim would have allowed the Jayhawks to set their press more consistently, a defense Stanford was never really able to solve.
As great as Wiggins was without Embiid, he just doesn't impact the game in as many facets as his fellow freshman. Wiggins is an inconsistent outside shooter who doesn't create plays for others, and while he is an excellent perimeter defender, most college teams don't have an elite 1-on-1 perimeter scorer for Wiggins to shut down. The only way to stop Stanford's deliberate, inside-out style of basketball was to have a big man who could shut down the paint, allowing the Kansas perimeter players to extend out their D and try to force more turnovers.
There is no more valuable player in basketball than a 7'0 who can impact the game on offense and defense - a player with Embiid's skill-set will dramatically improve any team he is on. Conversely, it's much easier to replace a perimeter player like Wiggins than a big man. If Wiggins had gone down, Kansas could have ran more offense through Wayne Selden, slowed down the tempo of the game and made more of a concerted effort to give Embiid the ball. He was always the difference maker for the Jayhawks - they were only going as far as Embiid could take them.
When projecting him to the next level, the back injury is obviously a huge concern. But if the team doctors give him the thumbs up, there's no question who I would take with the No. 1 pick. Embiid has the chance to be a great two-way center and center is the most important position in basketball. We got a pretty good demonstration of that in Lawrence over the last few weeks.