A week with Oklahoma's Trae Young, the hottest name in college basketball
Trae Young, Trae Young, Trae Young. Has there been a highlight show this college basketball season without him? Rarely.
By the time Stephen Curry called him “unbelievable” on Jan. 3 – can you think of a more thrilling way for a freshman to start 2018? – Young was leading the nation in both scoring and assists, and had become a full-blown sensation. Some of his numbers sounded as if they came out of an AAU tournament, not the Big 12. It was time to see what all the fuss was about, especially with his Oklahoma team on the cusp of a three-game set against ranked opponents.
And so, nine days in the rapidly blossoming career of the hottest name in the college game
FRIDAY, JAN. 5
Young’s legend has gone up faster than someone’s garage, built in eight weeks. This is how: In his fifth game as a collegian, he scored 43 points against Oregon. In his 10th, there were 22 assists against Northwestern State. In his 12th, he went for 39 points and 14 assists against TCU. Voila, Trae-mania.
But the most exciting thing for Young this day may be when his old high school team, the Norman North Timberwolves, beat rival Norman on a last-second shot. He played his high school ball barely three miles from campus and is the first player to list Norman as his hometown and start for Oklahoma since 1967-68. “Way to go T-wolves,” he tweets out from West Virginia.
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In the Oklahoma media, Young has given some insight into just how he’s taken the sport by storm.
“I just try to be smarter than my defender… I know every rule in college basketball. I know as soon as you put two hands on a (player), it’s a foul, and you can’t stop anybody with your body, so I don’t see how you can guard anybody in college basketball.”
Jevon Carter, averaging nearly four steals a game, might beg to differ.
SATURDAY, JAN. 6
The Mountaineers have defense in their eyes. Carter helps hold Young to nine points in the first half, but when he picks up his fourth foul, he has to leave with 13:30 left and the Sooners ahead 53-51. Things look good for Oklahoma.
They aren’t. West Virginia gets many helping hands — especially Teddy Allen off the bench — and goes on a 12-2 run with Carter out. The Mountaineers win 89-76, despite some woeful shooting numbers. “It’s like a golf scramble,” coach Bob Huggins says. “Everyone doesn’t have to hit a good shot, just somebody.” West Virginia’s 14-game winning streak is its longest in 29 years.
Young scores 29 points but shoots 8-for-22 to get them, and has eight turnovers to go with five assists. He also has only two field goals the last 14 minutes, as West Virginia unplugs his magic. Afterward, the Mountaineers play down the idea that it was all about stopping one freshman.
Carter: “We were trying to stop everybody… It’s a team game. The better team won tonight.”
Allen: “I wasn’t really worried about him. I was just worried about playing against the Sooners and getting the W at home.”
Young’s verdict: “You’re not going to win every one. We’re fine… It’s just one game. I’m not worried about it, our goals are still in front of us.”
MONDAY, JAN. 8
Rayford Young averaged 14 points for Texas Tech from 1996-2000, and once scored 41 against Kansas, 32 in the last nine minutes. Pertinent numbers, since his alma mater is next on his son’s docket.
“I’m still trying to figure out what color shirt my dad is going to wear tomorrow,” Trae says after practice.
TUESDAY, JAN. 9
Who’s that wearing Trae Young’s No. 11 the first half? Whoever it is, he’s a long way from unbelievable, missing 11 of 12 shots and having only five points at halftime.
The Oklahoma universe rights itself the second half as Young scores 22 of his eventual 27 points, and the Sooners win 75-65. He adds nine assists, and also has four steals in six possessions, showing the defensive skills no one talks about. But he admits the idea of playing against his father’s school affected him.
“This game had a lot of emotions,” he says afterward. “I played like a freshman the first half. I let that get to me.”
Another game, another defensive-minded opponent determined to take some fire out of his onslaught, another tough shooting line – 7-for-23. “That’s how it’s going to be the rest of the way on out,” he says. “I didn’t shoot the ball well again tonight, but that’s going to happen. I don’t expect to be perfect every night.”
But he still tops 25 points for the 13th consecutive game, something no other Division I player has done this century. And he’s averaging 31 points and 9.5 assists against top-10 opponents.
“I just think what he does is, he exposes your lapse every time,” Texas Tech coach Chris Beard says. “There are mistakes all over in every game, but there are only certain players like Trae that can put the ball wherever he wants.”
WEDNESDAY, JAN. 10
Young is so good, he gets assists even on days he doesn’t play. A review of Tuesday’s game film leads to a change in the final statistics and gives him his 10th assist, and his ninth double-double in 15 college games.
No wonder he’s made the Sooners a hot ticket. The school announces two more advance sellouts. Last season, there were none.
THURSDAY, JAN. 11
The topic on the Big 12 coaches’ teleconference is what it’s like to have a player riding such a tidal wave of attention, and still maintain team chemistry.
“Fortunately for us, he likes passing the ball,” Lon Kruger says. “He’s not just a scorer. The other players know if they move and work and run the floor and make themselves available, Trae will give them the ball. That makes the chemistry a lot easier. It’s not like he’s dominating the ball and not giving it up and not making good basketball plays. Our players understand that and appreciate it, and it’s been a pretty easy transition because of that.”
FRIDAY, JAN. 12
Already, the Sooners face a Big 12 rematch, with TCU due the next day. Memories of the Sooners’ 90-89 win on Dec. 30: The Horned Frogs led by 13 in the second half, before Oklahoma charged back to snap the nation’s longest winning streak at 17 games. Young’s 39-point, 14-assist day means another big scoop of national headlines.
TCU has had a frustrating time of it. Unquestionably one of the nation’s better teams, the Horned Frogs are 1-3 in the Big 12, losing to Oklahoma by one, Texas by one in two overtimes, and Kansas by four.
The supply of extraordinary Young stats is limitless. Here’s another: He’s averaging 19.8 points in Big 12 games after halftime. Only two other players in the league are averaging more than that the entire game.
SATURDAY, JAN. 13
Who can score 43 points in a game, bury 10 3-pointers, but earn the loudest applause for one pass? Trae Young can.
The final seconds of regulation are slipping away, and Oklahoma is down one. Young has scored all 16 Sooner points in the last nine minutes, and he has the ball in his hands, so everyone knows who is going to take the last shot.
Or not. Young makes his move into traffic, spots an open Christian James in the corner, and delivers the ball. Swish, 3-pointer. TCU then ties and forces overtime, but the Sooners win 102-97. Another page in the fairy tale.
“Being a competitor, obviously I want to take the last shot,” Young says afterward. “I want the game to be in my hands. But I want to make the right play, and the right play was throwing it to Christian.”
Young’s day includes 29 of his 43 points in the second half, 11 rebounds and seven assists. He also has nine turnovers, but nobody seems to care much. He now is averaging 21.6 points in Big 12 games – after halftime.
It is Oklahoma radio play-by-play man Toby Rowland who says to his audience after a Young play, “We are witnessing something the likes of which we have never seen in this building.”
It is James who says afterward, “It’s crazy. Sometimes you’re wondering, is he even human?”
It is Kruger who mentions how Young’s competitiveness and focus has helped him handled the renown swelling up around him. “He’s handled it great. I say that based on his play. It’s very hard for a guy to be consistently at that high level through 15 ballgames. Normally you get to where you start maybe expecting it to happen and you get that big drop-off here or there. It hasn’t happened with him.”
Saturday turns out another scintillating day in the Big 12. To go with this overtime classic, there are three one-point finishes. What a league, and poor TCU is the victim. The Horned Frogs have averaged 89.8 points in five conference games – and lost four of them, by a combined 11 points.
The week ends with Oklahoma 14-2, and leading the nation at 93.6 points a game. The Sooners have put in 521 field goals, and Young has either scored or assisted on 58 percent of them. He is averaging 30.1 points, nearly eight more than anyone else among the high major conferences. Nor can opponents hope for relief from Young foul trouble. He’s committing one every 26.7 minutes he is on the floor – 20 so far in 16 games.
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His face is on this college basketball season now. Does that mean the campus and the Sooners are treating him differently?
“My teammates are the same people from the summer," he says. "We start school Monday, so we’ll see how that is. I’m just having fun. This is what you dream of when you’re a kid growing up; playing college basketball at a high level, and winning.”
At this rate, what will they be saying about Trae Young by March?