College basketball’s most contentious player of the year race in recent memory may come down to one key question.
Has Oklahoma’s Trae Young performed well enough to justify the winner of the award hailing from a team that will be lucky to make the NCAA tournament?
Young was the runaway favorite to win national player of the year halfway through this season because he was putting up dizzying numbers for a Sooners team that won 14 of its first 16 games. By mid-January, Oklahoma was fourth in the Associated Press poll and Young was leading the nation in points and assists per game by an astonishingly wide margin.
Sixteen games into his college career, Young averaged a ridiculous 30.1 points and 9.9 assists and shot 40.8 percent from behind the arc and 45.8 percent from the field. He was college basketball’s Stephen Curry, a point guard with the range to pull up from anywhere inside the mid-court stripe, the quickness to beat his man off the bounce and the court vision to generate open looks for his teammates.
Everything began to change on Jan. 16 when Kansas State revealed the blueprint for how to beat Oklahoma during an 87-69 rout of the Sooners.
Whether it was face-guarding Young when he didn’t have the ball or sending two defenders at him every time he took a dribble handoff or curled around a ball screen, the Wildcats did everything possible to get the ball out of his hands and force another Oklahoma player to beat them. Young scored an inefficient 20 points on 21 shots that night, committed a conference-record 12 turnovers and only reached the free throw line a season-low four times.
The adjustments Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger made underscored the glaring inability of any of the other Sooners to consistently generate their own shots or create for their teammates. Instead of relying on other players to take advantage of the extra attention defenses paid Young, Kruger designed more catch-and-shoot plays for his freshman or had him attack without a ball screen to make it more difficult for the defense to trap him.
Young scored or assisted on a ridiculous 57 percent of Oklahoma’s baskets this season because putting the ball in his hands and asking him to make a play was always the Sooners’ best option. Second- and third-leading scorers Christian James and Brady Manek are both catch-and-shoot specialists. Top big men Khadeem Lattin and Jamuni McNeace excel scoring on dump offs or finishing lobs above the rim. Only wing Kameron McGusty could beat his man off the dribble and score, and to say the 6-foot-5 sophomore was inconsistent would be overly generous.
Credit Young for always shouldering the blame after losses and for never singling out teammates, but the burden of being Oklahoma’s one-man engine, facing frequent double teams and dealing with constant media scrutiny took its toll. He still averaged 24.6 points and 7.6 assists during the final 14 games of the regular season, but his turnover rate soared and his shooting efficiency sank to 38.3 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from behind the arc.
An Oklahoma team that had been suspect defensively all season couldn’t cope with the downtick in offensive efficiency. The Sooners (18-12, 8-10) dropped 10 of their final 14 games in the unforgiving Big 12, falling out of the AP Top 25 by mid-February and all the way to the NCAA tournament bubble soon afterward.
Criticizing Young for trying to do too much is foolhardy because Oklahoma’s other players were even more inefficient than he was when they had to create shots for themselves, but the freshman does deserve some blame for the Sooners’ dreadful defense. Too often he loses focus, fails to stay in front of his man or chooses not to fight through a screen, perhaps a product of him conserving energy for the offensive end of the floor.
“If he has to guard and he’s got the right mindset, he can be an adequate defender, but he has to want to,” a Big 12 assistant coach told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a liability defensively right now because that effort isn’t always there.”
Given the combination of Oklahoma’s tailspin and Young’s declining efficiency and subpar defense, it’s tough to justify anointing him national player of the year. There’s no precedent for a player on a team as mediocre as Oklahoma winning, and there are other guys who are also having excellent seasons on teams that didn’t finish below .500 in their leagues.
Villanova’s Jalen Brunson is the catalyst for the Wildcats, a savvy, multi-faceted point guard who averages 19 points per game, posts nearly three times as many assists as turnovers and does damage from the low block, off the dribble or from behind the arc.
Highly touted Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton is a physical marvel, a 7-foot-1 freakishly athletic double-double machine with the strength to dominate in the paint and the skill to sink jump shots from the perimeter.
Fellow future lottery pick Marvin Bagley III has been every bit as impactful as Ayton, boosting Duke with his 20.7 points per game, his remarkable rebounding ability and his ability to alter shots with his length and timing.
But as outstanding as each of those players has been, the best choice for national player of the year is a point guard who may be more indispensable to his team than anyone besides Young. It’s so hard for Kansas coach Bill Self to take Devonte’ Graham off the floor that the senior logged all 40 minutes in 12 of his teams’ 18 conference games and 39 minutes in several others.
On offense, Graham inherited the role of Kansas’ primary shot creator from Frank Mason and did his best to keep the Jayhawks humming. He is averaging team highs of 17.6 points and 7.2 assists and shooting 42.3 percent from behind the arc.
On defense, Graham often draws the assignment of guarding the opposing team’s top perimeter scorer, something not even Mason did until late in close games last season. Graham also raised his level of play as the season went along, helping Kansas hold off West Virginia and Texas Tech to capture its record-setting 14th straight Big 12 title.
On Sunday morning, the Big 12 announced that its coaches voted unanimously to award the league player of the year award to Graham over Young. The margin is a surprise, but the outcome should not be.
Never before has a team as close to the NCAA tournament bubble as Oklahoma produced college basketball’s consensus player of the year.
Brilliant as Young was throughout the first half of his historic freshman season, he is unlikely to set a new precedent.
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