Oklahoma entered the week No. 4 in the nation, making the Sooners the highest-ranked basketball team in what many consider to be the strongest conference in the nation, the Big 12.
But after an 87-69 shellacking at the hands of Kansas State in Manhattan on Tuesday, the Sooners may now be confronting a new and more modest reality. (If you’re not shocked to be considering this possibility, you’ve likely been prepared on this topic most ably by my colleague Seth Walder.)
This team and its sensational freshman star, Trae Young, are still an amazing story, far more so than any of us could have imagined just a few months ago. Nevertheless, they almost certainly will have to develop new capabilities to prove they can truly compete with Kansas, Texas Tech and West Virginia for the Big 12 title in 2018.
Here is where OU finds itself with one-third of its conference season now in the books …
Shooting 3s is great, but insanely great 3-point shooting can end abruptly
The Sooners entered their game against the Wildcats having made a rather incredible 47 percent of their 3-point attempts in Big 12 play. I’m not going to invoke the “live by the 3, die by the 3” aphorism here because I don’t know what that is supposed to mean, exactly. (If you want less variation in 3-point production from game to game, it seems like you’d actually want to attempt more of them. Subject for another day.) I will say, however, that making almost half of your (many) 3-point attempts over the course of five conference games will hide some performance blemishes on both sides of the ball.
It’s fair to say this is more or less what took place with Oklahoma early in the Big 12 season. Lon Kruger’s men took the floor in Manhattan tied for the Big 12 lead along with KU and West Virginia, but the Sooners also started that game having shot a lower percentage on their 2s in conference play than they had on their 3s.
Kruger still will likely turn out to have a very good 3-point-shooting team, and this offense’s best look will in all probability continue be a perimeter-oriented one. But we’re getting a better grasp of just how good this entire team will look — both on offense and on defense — when those perimeter shots are falling at a very high but not unheard-of rate.
Young is now committing turnovers at a higher rate
In 2018, surely, we can make plenty of stylistic allowances on offense. This is supposed to be the age of Steph Curry, yet the reigning NCAA champion, North Carolina, didn’t shoot all that many 3s last season. One size need not fit all when it comes to success in college basketball.
Still, the common denominator shared by just about every good offense is a turnover rate that is, at worst, average. And right now, Young is suffering through easily the most turnover-prone stretch of his still-young college career.
In the 421 offensive possessions during which he’s been on the floor over Oklahoma’s past six games, Young has given the ball away no fewer than 46 times. The Sooners’ turnover rate as a team in Big 12 play is still acceptable (18.4 percent), but the material point is that it’s significantly higher than what OU’s Big 12 opponents are recording (14.8 percent).
Again, you can succeed on defense without forcing a high number of turnovers on defense. Not every team is built to be “Press Virginia.” But if you’re going to place your hopes on outscoring opponents by making a high number of 3s, you need to keep your turnovers to a bare minimum.
Seth Greenberg breaks down some of Trae Young’s struggles in the Sooners’ loss to Kansas State.
Oklahoma is no longer succeeding at that objective, and as a result the Sooners find themselves in effect falling between two performance stools. Clearly rivals like Texas Tech and West Virginia appear to have better defenses. But, increasingly, it also seems probable that a rival like Kansas is superior on offense, even with Young factored into the equation.
Young is just one player
One of the striking aspects of Young’s unmistakable ascent has been how asynchronous it is. After all, isn’t this supposed to be the era of position-less basketball? Shouldn’t Oklahoma and every other team be spreading the floor with multiple players who can shoot, pass and drive? Yet the Sooners have taken a page from the past, seemingly, and put the ball squarely in the hands of one exceptionally assertive scoring point guard.
That decision has proved wise for much of the season. Still, even the example of Buddy Hield at this same program two years ago suggests that Young could use some help in 2018. Hield had running mates like Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard getting a high number of minutes and carrying a fair share of the workload on offense.
There’s still time for a similar dynamic to occur in Norman in 2018, and for Sooners like, say, Christian James and Brady Manek to give Young a midseason lift. Until then, Young and Oklahoma appear headed for a season much better than anyone could have expected three months ago but a bit more ordinary than what we envisioned just two or three weeks ago. Right now a Big 12 title seems like a stretch.