And when Trae Young doesn’t play well …
Oof. The Oklahoma freshman who had captured the nation’s attention with his fluid and seemingly effortless play was held to a human level by Kansas State on Tuesday night.
The Wildcats rocked Young and the fourth-ranked Sooners 87-69 in what was easily Kansas State’s most satisfying effort of the season, and a much-needed morale boost after Saturday’s demoralizing one-point loss at Kansas.
Tuesday was K-State at its best. Barry Brown carried the load early on, and after setting the pace Dean Wade, Cartier Diarra and Xavier Sneed played supporting roles perfectly.
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But the best performance was turned in by Bruce Weber. The K-State coach who had chirped about officiating after Saturday’s loss left his chagrin in Lawrence and had his players ready to face the nation’s No. 4 team.
Text messages of encouragement were distributed to players. Practice was positive. And it all showed on Tuesday.
“We could easily have put our heads down,” Weber said. “But we were about resiliency and being a better team.”
Kansas State showed so much against the Sooners that you’re left to wonder about this team’s upside. Scoring ability drops off after the top four, but each of the leaders is capable of getting his own shot.
The recent eye opener has been Diarra, the freshman pressed into additional duty with an injury to Kamau Stokes. Tuesday was Diarra’s third start, and although the left-hander got off to a slow start, he has picked it up and is averaging 17 points and has knocked down seven of 11 three-pointers in his increased role.
The bigger takeaway Tuesday is how Kansas State confused and frustrated Young, who arrived in Manhattan as the nation’s leader in scoring (30.1 points per game) and assists (10.1 per game). At that rate, Young would become the first player since 1952 to lead the nation in those categories.
But Young never worked as hard this season as he did on Tuesday. Kansas State jumped an additional defender at the top of the key, forcing Young into a decision, and too often it was a bad one.
Young finished with 12 turnovers, and according to ESPN that’s the most by a major-college player in one game since 1999.
He commits a lot of turnovers, averaging nearly seven per conference game before Tuesday, but that’s a tolerable number considering how often he has the ball and how many points Young produces.
Even something approaching a dozen errors is OK, if Young has nearly all of them for his team and the Sooners are approaching their nation leading scoring average of 93.6 points.
But the game played against Kansas State wasn’t like that at all. Young finished with 20 points and six assists and knew his play was unacceptable.
“I played terrible,” he said. “Blame this loss on me.”
Much of it, sure. But Oklahoma’s overall defense shares some blame after Kansas State shot 73 percent in the second half.
Weber referred to that stretch as “magic basketball,” and surely it felt like a new experience to a team that didn’t have much to brag about before Tuesday.
And what is it about Manhattan that spooks Sooners coach Lon Kruger?
The Kansas State hero, who played and coached his way into the school’s hall of fame and has his retired jersey hanging from the rafters, came into the game winless against a Bruce Weber team on the Bramlage floor.
Kruger has brought terrific teams, like the Buddy Hield squad that reached the 2016 Final Four, and didn’t win in the building he opened as a coach in the 1988-89 season. Now, Young and this group leave bruised.
Weber wants his bunch to learn from that experience. The Hield team K-State took down was ranked No. 1. The Wildcats celebrated that achievement, promptly lost six of their next seven games and played their way out of NCAA Tournament contention.
That team didn’t know how to respond. These Wildcats showed, at least for one night, that they could push the right buttons, and there was no better time to get started on an upward trajectory. Starting with Oklahoma, the Wildcats play four of five at home, with the rematch with Kansas as the finale.