Even though Trae Young is leading the nation in scoring and assists this season, there’s one important statistical category where Oklahoma’s freshman phenom lags well behind other national player of the year contenders.
Oklahoma fell to fifth place in the Big 12 on Saturday afternoon as a result of its surprising 88-80 loss at last-place Iowa State. The Sooners have now dropped six of their past eight games to sink to 6-6 in the Big 12 and 16-8 overall. When the new AP Top 25 is released on Monday, they very likely won’t be included.
There’s no shame in suffering a few losses in college basketball’s deepest conference, but Oklahoma’s slide could certainly get worse considering its flaws and its remaining schedule. Three of the Sooners’ final six Big 12 games are challenging road clashes against first-place Texas Tech, second-place Kansas and suddenly surging Baylor. Oklahoma could have a difficult time winning any of those games given its shaky defense and lack of shot creators to ease the burden on Young.
If Oklahoma continues to play .500 or worse in the Big 12 the rest of the season, the obvious question is how that will impact Young’s national player of the year candidacy? Is he still the clear-cut favorite because of his gaudy statistics? Or do All-American candidates like Jalen Brunson and Marvin Bagley reenter the discussion since they’re also posting massive seasons for better teams?
The case for Young is simple enough: He’s averaging a national-best 29.9 points and 9.3 assists and no other player does more for his team. He’s Oklahoma’s one-man engine. Every time the Sooners need a big basket, it’s Young’s job to either create for himself off the dribble or set up a teammate with an open look.
The case against Young is that he conserves energy on defense and he has become less efficient on offense as opponents have geared their schemes toward denying him the ball or trapping him to force him to give it up. He has turned the ball over nearly seven times per game in Big 12 play and he is shooting a modest 41.7 percent from the field against league foes.
It also hurts Young that other players are posting historic seasons for teams that appear more likely to contend for the national title.
Brunson is the catalyst for a Villanova offense that is more efficient than any other in the KenPom era. He’s averaging 19.8 points, shooting 45.7 percent from behind the arc and tallying a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, fueling the Wildcats’ ascent to the top of the polls.
Bagley has been the most unstoppable player on a Duke offense that is nearly as formidable as Villanova’s. He averages 21.2 points and 11.4 rebounds, he gobbles up offensive boards at an absurd rate and he impacts the game defensively with his shot blocking.
Every consensus national player of the year since 2000 has starred on a team that earned a No. 3 seed or better in the NCAA tournament with the exception of three: Trey Burke, Kevin Durant and Andrew Bogut. Burke’s Michigan team and Durant’s Texas team secured No. 4 seeds, while Bogut’s Utah team dominated the Mountain West that year and landed a No. 6.
Oklahoma projects as about a No. 6 seed right now, safely in the NCAA tournament yet not among the teams expected to advance deep into March.
For Young to leave no doubt that he deserves national player of the year, he needs to help Oklahoma finish the season strong and reemerge as a threat to reach the Final Four. Otherwise he is leaving the door open for someone like Brunson to swoop in and wrest that title from his grasp.
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