- Trae Young showcased another level on Tuesday against a Jayhawks team that demands to stop being doubted.
Two Big 12 contenders were headed in different directions entering Tuesday night’s meeting in Norman, Okla. Kansas was sitting in first place and riding a five-game winning streak, while Oklahoma had seen its conference record fall to 4-3 after losing three of its last five contests. Thanks to 26 points from star freshman Trae Young and an effective hack-A strategy on Jayhawks center Udoka Azubuike, the Sooners pulled out an 85-80 win. Here are three quick thoughts on what unfolded at the Lloyd Noble Center:
A Different Trae Young
This was Young’s first game since he delivered maybe the most controversial individual performance of the season. On Saturday, he put up 39 shots and recorded a career-high 48 points in a loss at Oklahoma State that sparked a debate over whether he was hurting, rather than helping, his team by letting it fly so often. Three days later, Young attempted only four field goals in the first half and five after the break to finish 7 of 9 from the field. (He also shot 10 of 12 from the free throw line.) Watching Young dial back his offense was probably somewhat disorienting for anyone who’d seen him during his seven previous Big 12 games, in which he averaged 24.6 field goal attempts, and especially those who also tuned into the defeat in Stillwater over the weekend. The best approach for Young is probably somewhere in between what we saw on Saturday and Tuesday, a happy medium where he has no qualms attacking the basket and he’s also getting his teammates involved. Against Kansas, Young recorded nine assists as freshman forward Brady Manek and junior guard Christian James combined for 29 points, but he still put pressure on the Jayhawks’ defense by scoring inside and outside the three-point arc. Young should be encouraged to get his, because he’s one of the most talented offensive players in the country.
Stop Doubting Kansas
It was less than a month ago that the Jayhawks’ chances of notching at least a share of their 14th consecutive Big 12 championship, which would break the record set by UCLA from 1967-79, felt remote. They’d already dropped a pair of games at home (to Arizona State and Texas Tech), their frontcourt rotation looked shaky and their roster of conference opponents looked formidable. It was beginning to look like this was the year that the Jayhawks would finally fall short. Then they went out and beat five Big 12 teams in succession—including a West Virginia squad in Morgantown which then ranked sixth in the AP Top 25 Poll—to establish themselves as the league frontrunners. Kansas ought to be considered the favorite going forward even after falling to Oklahoma on Tuesday. According to Kenpom.com, the Jayhawks’ win probability is lower than 60% in only three of their 11 remaining fixtures in the regular season, and they may not play a more challenging game outside of a Feb. 24 trip to Texas Tech. Kansas wasn’t able to close out an offensively potent Sooners team on its home court, but the loss shouldn’t raise doubts about the Jayhawks’ status as the Big 12 favorite.
This is a Nice Win for Oklahoma
In a piece last week evaluating Big 12 teams based on their likelihood of claiming the league crown this season, SI.com ranked Oklahoma fourth, behind Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia. Even that seemed like a stretch after they followed up a blowout loss at Kansas State last Tuesday by falling to Oklahoma State, but the Sooners proved on Tuesday that those two defeats were not the first part of a prolonged plummet. Oklahoma recovered to knock off a legit Final Four threat who’ll probably enter the NCAA tournament as a top-three seed, and the Sooners did it with a more conventional offensive approach, one that didn’t involve their best player going on a Russell Westbrook-like rampage. Oklahoma probably can’t hang with Kansas in the conference chase. It hasn’t won a road game since the opener against TCU late last month, and it still has to travel to Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas. This is a brutally tough league, with few soft spots on the schedule for any team. This one happens to be still figuring out the best way to orient its offense around its star player. But that shouldn’t take away from what’ll register as one of the most valuable wins any Big 12 squad takes into selection Sunday. After a rocky patch of league games, Oklahoma now can breath a little bit easier.