Oklahoma basketball: Trae Young wants to make Sooner hoops great again

MADISON, WI - DECEMBER 03: Head coach Lon Kruger
MADISON, WI - DECEMBER 03: Head coach Lon Kruger /

Most college hoops experts are cautiously optimistic about Oklahoma basketball this season after seeing the Sooners fall off the radar screen in 2016-17.

Sooner men’s basketball, a Final Four team just two seasons ago, was in full rebuilding mode last season after losing three of their starting five, including national player of the year Buddy Hield. This season, coach Lon Kruger’s team brings back four of five starters from a team that finished 11-20 overall and just 5-13 in Big 12 play.

Last year’s OU roster included seven freshman or sophomore players who saw considerable action during the season. Those players are now have a year’s experience under their belt playing in one of the country’s best basketball conferences, but the big reason that the Sooners should be much improved over a year ago is the addition of five-star recruit Trae Young.

The 6-foot, 2-inch point guard was rated by ESPN as the No. 2 point guard in the 2017 national recruiting class and the No, 15 player overall. Young is the top-ranked player in a 2017 Sooner recruiting class rated as the 22nd best in the country.

Young could have signed with any one of a number of blue blood college programs, including Kansas in the Big 12, Duke, Kentucky, UCLA and Florida, but he chose instead to play his college basketball about 10 minutes from where he grew up in Norman, Oklahoma.

Even though Kansas was in consideration in Young’s selection process until the very end, his hometown Sooners got the final nod. Oklahoma was probably the sentimental favorite all along, given that Young grew up attending Sooner basketball games and he idolized Blake Griffin when the fellow Oklahoman played for OU. Young also is a big fan of Buddy Hield, who, he told ESPN staff writer Myron Metcalf, he stays in touch with.

There’s no question that Young was a tremendous high school player – he averaged nearly 43 points a game and shot 49 percent from the field his senior season at Norman North High School – and we’ve already been given a glimpse of what he is capable of doing at the next level.

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball
Oklahoma Sooners Basketball /

Oklahoma Sooners Basketball

In the Sooners’ 12-day, four-game exhibition tour to Australia and New Zealand this summer, Young averaged over 20 points a game and led Oklahoma in scoring in all four games. The Sooners averaged 119 points a game, with Young contributing 21.5 points and seven assists a game to that total.

“Trae has outstanding skill,” Kruger said about his top recruit and true freshman point guard in addressing the media at Big 12 Media Days in Kansas City on Tuesday. “Anytime you’ve got a player like that, he’s got an opportunity to make players around him better by attracting attention, by driving and attracting help defenders and kicking.

“He’s very fast out of the backcourt, so he’s creating some hopefully very easy buckets in transition.”

Kruger is hopeful that his young, but extremely talented point guard can lead the Sooners’ young but maturing roster back to relevancy after the growing pains and disappointment of last season.

“Trae’s the guy that can be a difference maker, Kruger told ESPN’s Metcalf “We add him to a seasoned group that we’ve got coming from last year.”

The Sooner head coach, who is set to start his seventh season at Oklahoma, talks a lot about his young, but seasoned roster. But Kruger’s seasoning and proven record of developing players and successful programs should be factored in to the Sooners’ expectation for the coming season, as well. In just six seasons, he took OU to its fifth Final Four appearance in school history, and he is one of just two college coaches to take five different programs to the NCAA Tournament.

The 2017-18 Oklahoma basketball season tips off in less than three weeks with a home opener at Lloyd Noble Center against Nebraska-Omaha.

Young could have easily gone to Kansas. The Jayhawks wound up his second choice. But now he can’t wait to compete against the Big 12 basketball juggernaut. Young is hoping his Sooners can accomplish something they’ve done just as a member of the Big 12 Conference. He doesn’t just want to beat Kansas, however.

“I want to break Kansas’ streak (of 13 consecutive conference titles),” Young told Myron Metcalf of ESPN. “It’s not going to be easy by any means, but that’s something I’m going to be hard on all year. That’s my goal …  We’re gonna do it.”

Aside from a return to the upper ranks of the Big 12, Sooner fans would delight in seeing nothing more.