BY JOHN ROHDE
Special to SoonerSports.com
Dec. 17, 2017
Amazingly enough, Saturday’s 91-83 victory over No. 3 Wichita State is the highest-ranked non-conference team Oklahoma has ever beaten on the road in men’s basketball.
Paired with their 85-83 victory over No. 25 USC at Staples Center eight days earlier, it also marked the Sooners’ second straight “road” victory over a ranked opponent (the USC game was technically neutral site, despite being played two miles from the Trojans’ campus).
How did the victors celebrate their shocking triumph over the Shockers? By renting a movie from Redbox for the bus ride back to Norman.
From the sound of things, it was a pretty mellow 177-mile trek back to Norman. The team maintained its composure, just as it did in front of a crazed gathering of 15,004 fans at INTRUST Bank Arena, an off-campus arena in downtown Wichita.
Once again, OU was led by true freshman point guard Trae Young, who was joined by fellow true freshman forward Brady Manek. The prize rookies combined for 50 points (37 in the first half) and nine 3-pointers.
A five-star recruit out of Norman North High School, Young is the nation’s leading scorer (28.8) and ranks third nationally in assists (8.9). He finished with 29 points and 10 assists and has now scored at least 28 points in seven straight games. Young erupted for 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the first nine minutes of the contest.
Saturday was simply more of the same from the 19-year-old Young, the early frontrunner for national freshman of the year and potentially player of the year.
“Statistically, it’s really off the charts, given what anybody else has ever done – especially through their first nine games,” Sooners head coach Lon Kruger said of Young. “I think he’ll keep getting better, though, making better decisions and even better plays. It’s hard to say whether he’ll improve on the numbers. He’s just done a remarkable job given how many times he has the ball in his hands. … The biggest thing is he lets everyone else do what they’re most comfortable doing.”
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall heaped praise on Young. “I haven’t coached against a freshman that plays the game at that level,” Marshall said afterward. “Hedging, switching. We tried everything against him. Trae Young is not going to get rattled. He is too good.”
Young’s continued excellence comes as no surprise to teammates.
“It took me a couple of games, but I realize I’m witnessing one of the greatest Oklahoma basketball players of all-time (in Young),” said OU sophomore guard Kameron McGusty, who poured in 13 points and three 3-pointers in just 16 minutes Saturday. “The way he shoots it, the way he gets to the cup, the way he passes it and blows by everybody, it’s just crazy. He’s going to go down as a legend here. It’s a blessing to play with him and to witness it with my own two eyes.”
Having played against Young since elementary school, Manek is more familiar with Young’s skills than anyone on the roster.
“I’m not surprised by what he’s doing,” Manek said. “I’ve seen him play all through high school. He’s unbelievable. I’ve seen him break five-man presses by himself. No, I’m not surprised.”
Nor is the 6-foot-2 Young shocked by his early success. “I just feel like I’ve put in so much work and preparation for this,” he said. “I feel that’s the reason I’m playing the way I am. My teammates are doing a great job helping me with that.”
The 6-foot-9 Manek, a four-star recruit out of Class 4A Harrah High School, finished with a career-high 21 points with 16 coming before intermission on 6-of-10 shooting from the field, including 4-of-8 from 3-point range.
“I loved it,” Young said of Manek’s performance. “Brady had a tremendous game. This is nothing new to me having played against Brady since I was in third and fourth grade. I’ve known about Brady’s game for a while. He came out and showed the world what we’ve known all along about him.”
Manek has a combined 36 points in the last two outings. “For me, it proves I can hit shots in big games and I can play with talented players on the court,” Manek said. “It proves we are one of the better teams and have a chance to do great things, so it’s going to be a great season.”
OU overcame a slow start as the Shockers’ first two shot attempts were dunks just 29 seconds into the game.
Turns out the 4-0 score would be Wichita State’s biggest lead of the game. OU never trailed after the 16:47 mark of the first half and led by as many as 18 in the second half.
OU still posted a convincing victory despite shooting just 28.1 percent from the field and 17.6 percent on 3-pointers after intermission, plus being held scoreless for nearly six minutes starting at the 7:15 mark of the second half.
The Sooners fought to a 43-43 draw on the boards against a team that led the nation with a 14.6 rebounding margin. “Rebounding was a point of emphasis all week,” Kruger said. “Our guys knew how great they are at it.”
Particularly pleasing to Kruger was it marked his team’s first victory in hostile territory and against an elite opponent.
“Oh, man. It was super loud,” McGusty said. “My ears were rumbling. I’m glad we didn’t let that affect us and we kept pushing and kept battling. That’s been one of our biggest keys so far this year is battling.”
Manek said, “It was a great crowd, probably the biggest crowd I’ve ever played for. We just showed that we can play on a big stage against a great team.”
Kruger didn’t try to hide how pleased he was with his team’s effort. “You know what? That was pretty good. You know why? Because Wichita State is good,” Kruger said during his drive back home. “I thought our guys handled a hostile crowd pretty well.”
Ranked No. 24 in the latest USA Today coaches’ poll, the Sooners (8-1) are riding a six-game winning streak and figure to catapult into the Top 20 of both polls this week.
“I feel like with all the pieces we have that we’re still very underrated,” McGusty said. “A lot of teams don’t think we can come in and beat ‘em, but I think it’s starting to show now.”
Young said two straight victories against ranked opponents, “Shows we can play with anybody in the country. We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be, but this is a good starting point. I’m very happy with where we’re at, but there’s a long way to go.”