The lingering question after the worst performance of Trae Young’s career is whether an opponent has finally cracked the code of how to slow down college basketball’s most unstoppable freshman?
Did Young merely have an off night in fourth-ranked Oklahoma’s 87-69 loss at Kansas State on Tuesday night? Or did the Wildcats provide a defensive blueprint for the Sooners’ future opponents?
There’s no doubt which side of this debate Young falls on. The 6-foot-2 guard shouldered the blame during his postgame press conference and again on Twitter after scoring an inefficient 20 points on 21 shots, committing a conference-record 12 turnovers and only getting to the free throw line a season-low four times.
“Gotta get better,” Trae Young tweeted. “This one is on me.”
Young definitely made a handful of bad reads and missed a couple shots he often makes, but it’s a disservice to Kansas State to put this all on his shoulders. A close examination of Tuesday night’s game reveals that the Wildcats’ defensive scheme had a lot to do with Young looking like a mere mortal for once instead of the Steph Curry clone that has averaged a national-best 29.5 points and 9.8 assists this season.
The primary goal of Bruce Weber’s defense was to take the ball out of Young’s hands and force other Oklahoma players to make plays. Kansas State tried to achieve this a variety of ways, from starting the game in a box-and-1, to blitzing every ball screen a Sooners player set for Young, to having 6-3 junior Barry Brown face-guard the Oklahoma star and try to deny him the ball whenever possible.
It was Kansas State’s ball-screen defense that gave Young the most problems, especially during the first half when he missed his first four shots and turned the ball over eight times.
When one of Oklahoma’s big men set a top of the key ball screen for Young in hopes of getting him a favorable matchup, both Young’s defender and the screener’s defender would run at him to force him to give up the ball. Young had trouble threading passes through traffic to Khadeem Lattin or Jamuni McNeace rolling to the basket, resulting in a flurry of turnovers.
The desire to score before Kansas State’s defense set itself also led to Young rushing in transition more than he otherwise might have. On one late first-half possession, Young sped the ball up court, attacked the basket 1-on-3 and hoisted a badly off target runner through a thicket of defenders.
Credit Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger for making some shrewd adjustments to free Young up a bit more in the second half.
Sometimes Young attacked the basket without a ball screen or turned down the screen to make it tougher for the double team to come. Other times Oklahoma set the ball screen higher in order to create an easier passing lane for Young or used sharpshooter Brady Manek as the screener to set up pick-and-pop threes instead of rolls to the basket.
Oklahoma also had Young play off ball more often than he has other games. He missed a couple of catch-and-shoot threes in the second half, but twice scored by taking advantage of Brown overplaying him and cutting to the basket for backdoor layups.
While Young was more effective in the second half than the first, this was ultimately still a win for Kansas State. The Wildcats made Young uncomfortable, got the ball out of his hands more than usual and forced Oklahoma to find other ways to beat them.
Oklahoma (14-3, 4-2) finished the night at .96 points per possession, well below its season average and not nearly enough to make up for the Sooners’ adequate but not formidable defense. Brown scored 24 points and Dean Wade added 21 as Kansas State (13-5, 3-3) broke open the game midway through the second half and cruised to its best win of the season.
Kansas State is certainly not the first team to create a defense designed to get the ball out of Young’s hands, but the Wildcats executed their game plan better than any other team has this season. Their double teams were timely, their rotations were crisp and their defenders’ hands and feet were always active.
Expect every Big 12 opponent to blitz every ball screen set for Young, to deny him the ball as much as possible and to try to prevent him from creating with the ball in his hands. It’s a good blueprint, but it’s far from foolproof.
Most nights Young will make better decisions out of double teams than he did Tuesday night. And most nights the defense won’t execute as flawlessly as Kansas State did.
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