FORT WORTH – Coaches spend hours scheming their game plans. The Basketball Gods laugh at those plans.
TCU coach Jamie Dixon, who can x and o with the best of them, was tasked with coming up with an idea to make sure Oklahoma freshman Trae Young wouldn’t put up crooked numbers in points and assists. Dixon decided to “Dan Patrick” his strategy – you can’t stop Young, you can only contain him.
The statistical goals: Limit Young to 28 points and five assists, meaning that the Sooners’ freshman wouldn’t facilitate points for his teammates.
The 6-foot-2 Young played his first Big 12 Conference game here Saturday and it was no different than the first 11. Better, in fact.
Playing before a sellout crowd at Schollmaier Arena against the 10th-ranked Horned Frogs and their 17-game winning streak, Young continued his eye-rubbing, hard-to-believe season. Young’s free throws with 7.9 seconds remaining lifted OU to a 90-89 victory in a game where each team had double-digit leads.
Young’s numbers were stupid – 39 points and 14 assists. But the 6-foot-2 guard has been so consistently amazing that stats like those are becoming mundane. After all, he’s averaging 29.6 points and 10.7 assists. He leads Division I in both categories. No player has ever led the nation in both.
“We wanted to make every shot tough,” TCU’s Kenrich Williams (22 points, nine rebounds, six assists) said of defending Young. “He was 9-for-23, not that great.”
True, Young at times struggled. He had seven turnovers and admitted that he forced a couple of shots. But he was able to get to the line 18 times, making 15.
“TCU did a lot of switching and hedged me hard,” Young said. “They’re a really good, tough, physical team. But they didn’t really do anything different than what other teams have done against us. It was a battle, but my teammates were knocking down shots and helped create some creases to let me drive to the basket. I just tried to play within the flow of the game, I wasn’t searching for threes or getting to the foul line.”
TCU recovered from falling behind 11-0 to start the game and appeared to be in control thanks to a dominating first 10 minutes of the second half. Trae Young missed his first four shots and committed two turnovers. He looked, well, average. But he helped Oklahoma overcome a 13-point deficit over the last 10 minutes.
On back-to-back possessions he hit Curry-worthy threes off the dribble. He also scored on a drive and a blink-and-you-missed it runner moving to his left. Young also had four assists as the Sooners (11-1, 1-0) overcame the deficit.
“We figured (Young) would get at least 20 shots and he only made nine,” Dixon said. “We put him at the line 18 times and that can’t happen. What hurt us was the assists. He got a lot of those in transition. We know what we did, we have to make a commitment to defense, especially in transition. It’s not our opponents it’s on us. And letting him get to the line that much was something we didn’t want.”
Oklahoma had a 19-8 edge in fast break points and often it was Young triggering the attack. Almost everything else was even in the game but the Sooners’ edge in quick-strike scoring was crucial.
The Frogs used four different players as primary defenders on Young – Jaylen Fisher, Alex Robinson, Shawn Olden and Desmond Bane. That foursome totaled 20 points. The 6-foot-6 Bane spent most of the second half checking Young but found out how difficult it is to shut down Young.
With the recent changes in how the game is officiated, a player with Young’s ball-handling skills puts the defense at a distinct disadvantage. No hand checking, no forearm shivers and the slightest contact is often whistled.
“He is playing in the right era,” Dixon said. “The way the game has evolved. They talk about back in the day in the NBA where guards couldn’t get in the lane to score. It’s a different game there and it’s trickled down now to college. Every rule change that’s been made has been to benefit the offense. It is what it is.”
The Sooners are one of four Big 12 to win precious road games on the opening weekend. All 10 coaches preach the formula of defending the home court and be thankful for any and every win on the opponents’ court. Young has yet to be stopped or contained and Oklahoma in one season has gone from pretender (11-20 last season) to contender.
Oklahoma, which has defeated two top 10 teams on the road in the same season for the first time in school history, might be even more dangerous now that Kameron McGusty has returned to the land of the shot makers. McGusty, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who averaged 11 points last season, spent the first eight games of the season missing more than making.
“For any player, when shots aren’t falling, it’s tough to have confidence,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “You miss shots, you don’t get as many shots, it’s just a downward spiral. Now it’s going upward for him and that’s great.”
McGusty scored 22 points off the bench against TCU and made two clutch threes in the final 2:35. The second came after Young missed a three with the Sooners trailing 87-85 but Jumani McNeace grabbed the offensive rebound and found McGusty on the right wing. His 3-pointer splashed home with 26 seconds remaining. “I knew it was money when it left my hand, it felt good,” he said.
With Christian Doolittle back following his first semester suspension, the Sooners’ roster is at full strength. Kruger has three lengthy post players (OU blocked 10 shots) plus rangy, springy wings in Christian James, Rashard Odomes and McGusty. And, a freshman point guard who is the best player in the country.
“He makes the basket bigger for everybody, including himself,” McGusty said of Young. “It’s a blessing to play for him. He makes the game easier for all of us.”
Easier for everyone who isn’t an opposing coach.