- After losing in overtime to No. 7-seed Rhode Island in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Oklahoma's season—and Trae Young's spectacular rookie year—officially came to close. With the NBA still under consideration, where will Young go from here?
PITTSBURGH – Some 50 minutes had passed since the final horn in what was likely his final game at this level of the sport, and still college basketball was not yet done with Trae Young. He stood beside a gray covered trash can in an arena hallway, just outside his Oklahoma team’s locker room, his face brightened by a pair of TV camera lights that cast a larger silhouette of himself on the off-white cinderblock wall behind him. A dozen or so reporters were gathered before him, peppering him with questions, not only about the Sooners’ 83-78 overtime loss to Rhode Island but also the turbulent season before it and where his career would head next. At one point he was asked what he learned most during his freshman year, one of the most prolific and compelling and talked-out in some time, perhaps decades, during which he had been seen as both a new sensation and old news, a one-man tour de force and a fading chucker.
“How to take the good with the bad,” he said.
That year is over now, both later and sooner than expected, depending on when the expecting was being done. Oklahoma had entered the season to modest projections after an 11-20 season the year before, then rode Young’s breakout to as high as No. 4 in the polls, only to limp into the postseason as cold a team as the NCAA tournament had seen, losers of 11 of their previous 14, including eight of their most recent 10. Their inclusion in the field, at 18-13, had drawn not just criticism but ire (former Pacers forward turned TV analyst Danny Granger declared he would be “highly thrilled if Rhode Island throttles them”) and conspiracy theories (ESPN’s Dan Dakich: “You can’t tell me that inside the committee room [they’re not] like, ‘look, this guy really sells tickets. He’s been the face of college basketball. We can’t leave him out.’”). They were put into the opening slot of Thursday’s games, tipping off the first true, full day of March Madness, providing a stage for the country’s brightest star to fire the tournament’s opening salvo, or be among the first sent home.
Young obliged with a strong if uneven game, scoring 28 points (on 9-of-18 shooting) and registering seven assists but also turning the ball over six times and missing the sort of deep, bold three-pointers on which much of his reputation had been built. He took just four shots in the first half, making all of them (and spending a stint of the period on the bench with two fouls), then went scoreless for the second half’s first 13 minutes, misfiring on a few jumpers but mostly functioning as a facilitator for his teammates as they clawed to remain with the Rams in a tight game.
“They did a good job on him, trying to stay in his body and staying physical,” said Oklahoma assistant Chris Crutchfield. “He’s better when he’s able to flow and move freely. It was a physical game. They forced him to take some tough shots.”
Down the stretch Young ratcheted up his aggressiveness, driving and scoring on several layups over the final minutes of regulation and drawing a foul, with 14.5 seconds left, that sent him to the line to tie the game with a pair of free throws. But in overtime he made just one of four field goals, missing once from the midcourt “March Madness” logo, and on two crucial possessions in the extra period’s closing minutes the possessions instead ended in the hands of teammates. It was Rhode Island senior E.C. Matthews, not Young, who drained the game’s most noteworthy shot, a three to all but seal the game by making its margin five points with 28 seconds to play. Not long after the Rams, who start four seniors, were moving on while the Sooners, who turned the ball over 14 times, were jogging off the floor somberly.
“Experience won out,” Crutchfield said.
And with that, the game’s most brilliant rookie season is done. It has been nothing short of a saga, a full collegiate career’s worth of narrative arc packed into a few months: The late-November run of 30-plus-point games, as remarkable visually—audacious threes from 30 feet, shrewd passes whipped through entire defenses—as they were statistically. The No. 4 ranking, the 14-2 start. The breathless coverage (yours truly being no exception) of the rare college standout to cross over into mainstream stardom before March. He was slender, daring and prolific, and so he was compared, perhaps unfairly, to Stephen Curry. NBA stars heaped praise on him. His name went from absent from NBA mock drafts to near their top. During broadcasts of his games ESPN displayed his stats at all times, just above the game’s score.
But over the last two months, Young began, almost predictably, to be knocked from that high perch. Opposing fans grew weary of the incessant hype; at Texas Tech, his father’s alma mater, Young was greeted with chants of “f*** you, Trae Young!” Worse still, Oklahoma began to lose—a lot. Young’s stat totals remained strong—he still finished the season leading the country in both points and assists per game—but as defenses keyed on him and saw him a second time, his efficiency cratered: over one four-game stretch he made just five of 32 three-pointers, and in February as a whole he shot just 36.1% from the field. The shot selection that, in both quantity and quality, had fueled his star power was now seen by many as a liability.
“He went out and played with a chip on his shoulder thinking he had to prove people wrong,” Sooners assistant Chris Crutchfield said yesterday. “Sometimes he got himself in trouble, trying to do some things that weren’t quite there.”
Thursday was something of a return to form, a strong if not-quite-spectacular showing in what is assumed to be his final collegiate game before heading to the NBA. It was the kind of game that at least justified Oklahoma’s inclusion as a tournament-level team and Young’s status as one of the country’s best players. Just days after Young was excluded from the quartet of finalists for the Naismith Award—on which many were ready to engrave his name not long ago—Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley praised him post-game as having “no weakness” and “an amazing NBA career ahead,” recalling the names of Allen Iverson and Ray Allen as the best college players with whom he’d previously shared a court.
Whether Young is indeed NBA-bound is still, technically, a question. After the game his father, Rayford, said it’s something the family has yet to decide, and entertained the idea of his son returning next season to claim the national player of the year awards that wound up eluding him. In the post-game press conference, Young himself demurred, saying his focus now was on his teammates. Asked an unrelated question next, about how he has learned to handle losses, Young’s mind veered back toward that uncertain future. “This is a chapter in my book,” he said. “This season, that chapter is closed now. They got to move on to, I mean, whatever's next. Whatever's next for me.”
Down the hallway, next to the garbage can, in front of the TV camera lights and the small swarm of reporters, Young said more of the same. “During the next week I’ll discuss it with my family, my future, and we’ll go from there,” he said.
The media availability period was closing, and Oklahoma’s media relations rep informed the reporters there would be time for just one more question. It was used to ask Young what he would remember most about this season, with so much good and so much bad to learn to take together. “I think I’ll remember the down times,” he said. “When we were down, that’s when we came even closer together.”
From there he stepped aside to film a brief interview for ESPN’s SportsCenter, standing in front of a blue NCAA backdrop. Some media members lingered, snapping photos on their phone, trying to capture what may have been Young’s last few moments in an Oklahoma uniform. When he finished the interview, he strode toward the locker room, only to be stopped by a TV reporter who greeted him with a handshake, then leaned in close to tell him something.
“Thank you,” Young told him. “I appreciate it.” Then he marched through the locker room entrance, a heavy, gray door bearing the Oklahoma logo swinging closed behind him.