Heartbeat of the Heartland: Trae Young and Baker Mayfield, The Dynamic Duo

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The last time one school had the Heisman Trophy winner and the consensus player of the year in college basketball was Oklahoma in 2008-09. Sam Bradford won the Heisman and Blake Griffin swept the hoops individual trophies.

The Sooners are halfway to a repeat.

OU senior quarterback Baker Mayfield is the owner of the school’s sixth Heisman Trophy. And while his three seasons in Norman has produced incredible numbers and records, there’s a newcomer who has had a front-row seat to see Mayfield’s exploits. And he’s well on his way to creating Mayfield-level excitement.

While Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton, Texas’ Mo Bomba and Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. received the bulk of the pre-season attention, Oklahoma’s Trae Young has dominated the first month of the season. There has not been a player who has done more and made as big an impact as Young.

On Saturday, Young and his teammates went around and through third-ranked Wichita State as Young scored 29 with 10 assists in a 91-83 victory. The Sooners had never defeated a team ranked as high as No. 3 in a road game. Oklahoma, picked to finish sixth in the Big 12, is 8-1 and surged into the rankings this week.

“That was a big win because I think we showed a lot of people what this team is capable of,” Young said in a phone interview on Sunday. “Winning a road game against Wichita State, they’re well-coached and talented and everybody on our team contributed. We were focused on being the more physical team. We won, but we made mistakes and that’s a good thing. This team is far from its peak.”

Kristian Doolittle, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward who last season averaged 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, is expected to rejoin the team after being suspended for the first semester due to academics. He adds another piece to a team that is averaging 93 points a game.

On the way to a 11-20 train wreck last season, the Sooners sorely lacked consistent point guard play. They finished 331st in the country in assists. This year, OU is in the top 15 in assists, averaging 18.3 per game. Trae Young has transformed the program; he leads the nation in scoring at 28.8 per game and is third in assists with 8.9 per game.

Kristian Doolittle, a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward who last season averaged 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, is expected to rejoin the team after being suspended for the first semester due to academics. He adds another piece to a team that is averaging 93 points a game.

“He’s been consistently very good in terms of making good basketball decisions,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger says about Young. “The ball is in his hands a lot. His shot selection has been good; he’s missed some long ones where you think, maybe he should have driven it, but that’s always the case when you miss. Considering how much he handles the ball, the percentage of poor decisions has been very low. He’s done a great job with his decision-making. He’s got a great imagination for the game, he’s creative, he anticipates what’s going to happen, he has great instincts. You have all that and you add the skill set, that’s a good package.”

The 6-foot-2 freshman from Norman is the first hometown player to play for the Sooners in half a century and thus far his numbers have been astounding. He scored 43 against Oregon in the PK80 tournament; that’s the fourth-most by an OU freshman – the top three rookie point totals were posted by Wayman Tisdale.

Starting with the 1988-89 season, the United States Basketball Writers Association has presented a freshman of the year award. In July 2010, the award was named for Oklahoma’s Wayman Tisdale, who was a freshman All-American in 1985 and who passed away in 2009 at the age of 44.

This season might be the first time that a Sooner wins the award named for the former OU star.

Circle the date

With Young elevating Oklahoma into Big 12 contender status, the Sooners’ season opener at TCU on Dec. 30 could be one of the best games of the weekend. The Horned Frogs, coming off the NIT championship and with five returning starters, was picked to finish third in the coaches’ pre-season poll. Oklahoma was picked for sixth.

After Monday night’s victory over Texas Southern, TCU is 11-0 and one of four remaining undefeated teams in Division I. The Frogs have equaled the school record with 16 consecutive victories going back to last season.

“Our goal is to win every game, anyway,” senior Kenrich Williams said when asked if the winning streak is burdensome. “I don’t want to lose any games. So no, there’s no pressure.”

Coach Jamie Dixon, who has done a remarkable job taking over a program that won a total of eight Big 12 games in the four seasons prior to his arrival, hopes his team’s undefeated start and winning streak brings attention.

“It’s a good thing. But you know why? Because it brings notoriety to a place that needs notoriety for their basketball program and their athletic department,” he said. “You can say we’ve won in football, but they still don’t get the attention they deserve. So I think it’s good.”

Winning the close ones

Kansas avoided a three-game losing streak thanks to a squeezing out a 73-72 victory over former conference foe Nebraska Saturday night. The Jayhawks had lost to Washington by nine and to Arizona State by 10, leading coach Bill Self to call his team soft.

The opposite of soft is tough. And the victory in Lincoln was about toughness as Kansas made the winning plays in the final minute. And winning close games is a major reason why the Jayhawks have compiled their remarkable streak of 13 consecutive Big 12 titles.

According to Jesse Newell of the Kansas City Star, over the last eight seasons Self’s teams are 85-32 in games decided by 10 or fewer points. And since 2014, the record is 45-13.

Texas struggling

If the Texas team was going to be shipped by FedEx or UPS, the package would need to be marked “fragile.” Right now, the Longhorns are an inexperienced team that nearly lost a buy game Monday night at home. Freshman point guard Matt Coleman hit the game-winning jumper with nine seconds remaining to give UT a 47-46 victory over Tennessee State. For Coleman, the winning shot was somewhat redemptive; he’s committed 10 turnovers in the last two games.

Coach Shaka Smart’s team appeared to be gaining momentum with its hard-fought 71-67 at Virginia Commonwealth in Smart’s homecoming. But late in the game, Texas sophomore guard Andrew Jones suffered a broken wrist and will likely be out until mid-January. In the three games without their leading scorer, the Longhorns are averaging 58 points a game, shooting 40 percent from the field and just 14-of-55 (25.4 percent) on 3-pointers.

“I think if they were honest, they would tell you they’re not really playing with the loose, aggressive nature,” Smart said after the game. “There’s some tension there. Again, I think these guys really have good intentions. But they’re going to need to understand, you’ve got to be a big boy when you’re playing college basketball. You gotta have to go out and make the right play. Is it a trend or a pattern? We’ll see.”

Texas will face Alabama in Birmingham in the Vulcan Classic Friday before opening Big 12 play against Kansas on Dec. 29 in Austin.