PITTSBURGH — Oklahoma freshman guard Trae Young, like the rest of his team, insists that the NCAA Tournament represents a fresh start. That would be a welcome development because if there is anyone who is good at starts it is Young.
He was an unstoppable force through January, bursting into college basketball and commanding the stage with three 40-point games and one 39-point game through the end of January. Then, he and the Sooners hit the wall, and rarely hit shots.
Young made only 31.4 percent of his field-goal attempts in February and March (as opposed to 47.4 before that). And Oklahoma sputtered through a 2-8 finish and has not won a game away from home since Jan. 30. In fact, the tournament selection committee drew a fair amount of criticism for even inviting the Sooners. Some people suggested the squad got in solely on the star power of Young, who leads the nation in scoring and assists despite the slump.
“Everybody is 0-0 now. Everybody in this field is capable of winning games,” he said Wednesday at PPG Paints Arena, where his team will open the Big Dance Thursday afternoon against Rhode Island. “We have got to come in with the mindset of we’re going to compete hard on both ends for 40 minutes, and hopefully get back to the way we were to start the season.”
Rhode Island, which finished on its own 4-4 slide, is wary and prepared for the best of Young. “Once he crosses halfcourt, he’s liable to shoot the ball from anywhere,” senior guard E.C. Matthews said. Coach Dan Hurley noted that Young has the ball in his hands “over 90 percent of the time . . . He can pass the ball with either hand at ridiculous angles.”
But some of the national commentary about Young in the past month has been less than superlative. “I’m 19 years old. I had to mature a lot more quickly than a lot of 19-year-olds would,” Young said. “It’s been a roller-coaster year. I wouldn’t go back and do anything different.”
Teammate Christian James said, “Trae’s a phenomenal player. He’s going to get criticism, good with the bad. So, you have to take it and just keep moving. Just keep pushing forward.” As for the criticism, James said, “it makes us want to play harder for him.”