The greatest testament to the strength of Big 12 basketball lies in studying how Oklahoma freshman Trae Young’s season has unfolded.
The freshman dove into college basketball with such a loud splash that he justifiably became the leading candidate to become national player of the year, and not by a little.
One week shy of the halfway point of the 18-game Big 12 schedule, Young hasn’t figured out how to negotiate his way through Big 12 defenders as well as those from OU’s nonconference schedule. He hasn’t yet figured out that not as many good shots are available to him as were early in the season, yet he's chucking shots at a higher rate.
Young might still be the leading national candidate for top honors, but he’ll need to lead his team to victory in Norman, Okla., tonight against Kansas to stand at the head of the race for individual honors in the Big 12.
At the moment, Devonte’ Graham, the man against whom he will be matched up for most of the 6 p.m. tipoff at Lloyd Noble Center, has the slight edge. Remember, numbers posted against teams from outside the Big 12 should be disregarded in voting for conference awards.
So, let’s look first at Young’s numbers in seven Big 12 games, compare those to his nonconference statistics and then look at how he has played in conference games, compared to Graham.
Young is coming off a 48-point explosion Saturday in the Sooners’ 83-81 overtime loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla.
That raised his scoring average to 33.3 in seven Big 12 games, compared to a 28.7 average in 11 nonconference appearances. But he’s taking more shots to get those points (24.6 per game in conference, 18 before that) and turning it over more often (7.6, compared to 3.8) in Big 12 play. He’s averaging 8.9 assists in Big 12 games, 10.4 before that.
The more Big 12 defenders take away from him in terms of scoring opportunities and setting up teammates, it seems, the more Young forces it. Still, Young leads not only the conference but the nation in both scoring and assists.
But has Young been the best, the most valuable player in the Big 12 so far?
A point guard’s primary responsibility is to ensure that the team gets high-percentage shots on a regular basis. That can’t happen if the ball is turned over or a bad shot is put up. Young made 14 of 39 shots and had seven turnovers in the loss in Stillwater. He has averaged 9.3 turnovers in OU’s past three games.
A Young/Graham comparison in Big 12 play:
Record: Young 4-3, Graham 6-1.
PPG: Young 33.3, Graham 20.4.
Assists: Young 8.9, Graham 6.7.
Turnovers: Young 7.6, Graham 3.1.
Two-point percentage: Young .415, Graham .361.
3-point percentage: Young .378, Graham .415.
Young gets to the free-throw line more often and finishes at the rim better. Graham does a much better job of taking care of the basketball and involving teammates. Graham, who always has to defend the other team’s best guard, has the defensive edge.
The argument as to the early season leader for Big 12 player of the year is close enough to suggest that the point guard who leads his team to victory tonight stands at the front of the conference.
All the pregame hype seems to center on how Kansas will defend Young.
“You don’t stop (Young),” KU coach Bill Self said. “I don’t know if you corral (him). … How do you get 48 in a college game?”
By launching 39 shots.
“The whole deal is, that’s what people don’t understand, it’s not that he took 39 shots, it’s that he’s good enough that he can get 39,” Self said. “That’s the thing about (Michael) Jordan that was so special, is he could get his shot any time he wanted to. Even if he shot a low percentage, you knew how good he was because he could get it. … If a guy can get off that many shots and still impact every play from an assistant standpoint or whatever, what happens when he shoots 50 percent or 55 percent? You’re looking at an astronomical number and 48 (points) seems astronomical to me.”
Just as was the case when Kansas played in Norman the year Buddy Hield scored 46 points in a 109-106, triple-overtime KU victory, nobody’s talking about how the Sooners plan to contain Graham. Everybody was talking about him after the game. Graham scored 27 points in Norman as a sophomore, checked Hield, a shooting guard, and led the Jayhawks to a 76-72 victory.
Basketball's a team game, obviously, but it will be difficult not to watch the game within the game, especially since so much of the time the ball will be in the hands of the point guards, one a freshman, the other a senior.