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Lost Pressure: How Oklahoma freshman phenom Trae Young ignores expectations and will get the Sooners back on track

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KANSAS CITY — Trae Young knew he had slipped up as soon as he said it.

Surrounded by reporters, the five-star freshman uttered a word he loathes, going so far as to refuse its very existence, when asked the pros and cons of staying in his hometown to be Oklahoma University’s star point guard.

“I know it’s a lot of pressure,” he said, wanting to reel the word back in as soon as it entered the atmosphere inside the Sprint Center at Big 12 media day Tuesday.

“I don’t know why I said pressure,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t use the word pressure. It’s just a lot on my plate, is what I say.”

“I don’t use that word. I’m going to hit myself later for saying that.”

Whatever word you want to use to describe it, the spotlight will be on Young this season as the centerpiece of the Sooners’ hoped bounce-back season following last year’s 11-20 record coming off a Final Four the previous season.

“He’s done a really good job of making it about his teammates and making it about others, the program,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said, “and he’s a guy that could go off individually and hasn’t done that. He’s very — he’s smart with regard to the value of doing things as a group and he knows, too, that he needs his teammates to play well and he’s doing everything he can to help encourage them and motivate them to do everything they can and certainly his teammates appreciate what he can do.”

The whole of Oklahoma knows what Young can do after he averaged 42.6 points per game as a senior at Norman North High School, which is all of 4 miles north of the Sooners’ Lloyd Noble Center home. He joins legends Blake Griffin, Wayman Tisdale and Jeff Webster as Oklahomans who stayed home with the Sooners after being a McDonald’s All-American.

That makes walking campus something of an event for Young.

“I’m the type of guy, I like to interact with a lot of people, like meeting new people,” he said. “To be able to see all the people on campus, to see what it’s like to be a college student, it’s been fun.

“Sometimes I’m late to class just because I’m getting stopped, but it’s fun. I love it.”

Young had plenty of opportunity to bolt from the familiarity of home to one of the country’s basketball factories that takes in highly-rated recruits and churns out highly-drafted prospects every single year.  He sought counsel from a pair of his peers in the same situation.

“People like Mohammed (Bamba),” Young said of the potential No. 1 draft pick now at Texas. “Me and him are really close. Him and my best friend (Missouri freshman) Michael Porter. We talk almost every day. Us three are really close.”

That allowed them to compare notes.

Lon Kruger (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

“We were both recruited by Kentucky and Kansas,” Bamba said, “and we just kind of picked each other’s brains over what we thought.

“It was just good to have someone you could relate to.”

In the end, though, Young’s decision centered on one simple truth.

“He wanted,” Bamba said, “to be home.”

Young now straddles something between savior and servant. The Sooners, of course, hardly need saving just 18 months removed from a Final Four, but an 11-20 season doesn’t exactly create endearing memories for anyone. Young has the talent to make an instant impact, but not just with his prodigious talent and prolific scoring.

“His ability to lead and bring in a group of people,” Bamba said. “The fact he was able to do it at these different camps where people don’t necessarily care about each other. The fact he was able to do it at camp, shows he’ll be able to do it anywhere.

“He was big on making sure he wouldn’t try to make a home run play. He’ll try to do different things to set it up, get the best shot possible. Which is what a point guard should do.”

The crazy-hyped freshman phenom who also happens to be the hometown hero operates in a somewhat delicate space when first arriving in a locker room. An ability to spread the love on the court goes a long way.

“Trae has outstanding skill,” Kruger said. “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 defender and kicking.”

Which is exactly what Young says he’s looking to do.

“I feel like I’m very prepared to come in, do what coach Kruger says, push the pace and do what he tells me to do,” Young said. “Me and him, we watch film all the time. Almost every day. That helps coming in and knowing what he wants.”

Young may have the most potential of any Sooner recruit since Blake Griffin stepped on campus a decade ago, but it’s a Sooner who was lightly regarded as a recruit and grew into a lottery pick that begs comparison. Buddy Hield came to Oklahoma with few believing his NBA prospects, but became one of the best in school history through a legendary work ethic. That drive is something that their mutual coach believes his newest star shares.

“I think that they’re both equally motivated,” Kruger said. “That’s the key. Whatever makes you love getting up and working to be better every day. I think both are kind of equal in that way, kind of from a different starting point. Both are very competitive, and both want to do really great things.”

A lofty comparison for a player who’s yet to take a competitive dribble. It’s one that a freshman, playing in his hometown, with the weight of massive expectation and a boundless professional future might shrink from.

Trae Young, though?

“There’s no such thing,” he said, “as pressure.”

Oklahoma sophomore Doolittle to miss first semester

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Oklahoma’s non-conference schedule just got a little more challenging.

Sooner sophomore Kristian Doolittle has been suspended for the first semester of this upcoming season due to academic reasons, the school announced Wednesday.

“I didn’t meet the academic standards and I apologize to my teammates, coaches, fans and the university,” Doolittle said in a statement released by the school. “I take full responsibility for my actions and will use this time away from the team to learn from my mistakes. I am committed to bettering myself throughout this process and look forward to earning a chance to compete with my teammates after the fall semester.”

The 6-foot-7 forward should be back in time for Oklahoma’s most important part of the season – Big 12 play – but the Sooners have a rather challenging non-conference slate for which he’ll be sidelined. Oklahoma is in the loaded field of the PK80 tournament in Oregon with Arkansas its first-round opponent and then North Carolina potentially waiting in the second round. The Sooners also play USC in Los Angeles and at Wichita State before welcoming Northwestern into Norman.

“We’re disappointed for Kristian,” OU coach Lon Kruger said in a statement. “He made some poor decisions that resulted in his suspension from the university. We will provide support and encouragement as he works to earn the opportunity to rejoin the team at the conclusion of the fall semester.”

Doolittle averaged 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last season, starting 25 games in Oklahoma’s 20-13 campaign.

March Madness 2017: Big 12 Tournament Preview, Bracket and Conference Postseason Awards

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Big 12 Player of the Year: Frank Mason III, Kansas

Mason’s play this season makes him the no-brainer conference player of the year and perhaps the frontrunner for the national award. He’s averaging 20.5 points, 5.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 48.8 percent from the field and a sizzling 49.3 percent from 3-point range for the potential No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Big 12 Coach of the Year: Bill Self, Kansas

There was a temptation to reward Brad Underwood for Oklahoma State’s turnaround, but it’s impossible not to recognize Self leading his program not only to a 13th-straight conference title, but doing it by four games in the country’s toughest league. Kansas may have the top talent in the league year in and year out, but Self’s presence on the sideline guarantees it comes together year in and year out. This season was no exception.

First-Team All-Big 12:

  • Frank Mason III, Kansas (POY)
  • Monte Morris, Iowa State: The nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio is as consistent an elite presence on the floor as there is in the country.
  • Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State: The most dynamic and important piece of the country’s best offense, Evans averaged 18.7 points per game.
  • Josh Jackson, Kansas: Mason is Kansas’ MVP, but Jackson is the Jayhawks’ most difficult matchup and is a likely top-five NBA draft pick.
  • Johnathan Motley, Baylor: The big man doubled his rebounding output this season to average a double-double of 17.5 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Second Team All-Big 12:

  • Jevon Carter, West Virginia
  • Jeffrey Carroll, Oklahoma State
  • Devonte Graham, Kansas
  • Deonte Burton, Iowa State
  • Jo Lual-Acuil, Baylor

RELATED: Player of the Year | Coach of the Year | NBC Sports All-Americans

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The thought was coming into the year that the Big 12 would be down this season, but for the fourth-straight year it ranked as the country’s best conference by KenPom. Another thing that didn’t change was Kansas winning the league, making it 13 in a row for the Jayhawks. The league isn’t going to send a huge number to the NCAA tournament this season, but make no mistake, the conference’s round-robin schedule was a grind, making it all the more impressive Kansas cleared the league by four games.

The Bracket

When: March 8-11

Where: Sprint Center; Kansas City, Mo.

Final: Saturday, March 11, 6 p.m.

Favorite: Kansas

The Jayhawks are clearly the class of the Big 12, winning the conference by its largest margin since 2010. Kansas isn’t invulnerable at the Sprint Center, as the rest of the league has more than enough firepower to threaten them, but there’s no argument that makes anyone else the favorite.

And if they lose?: West Virginia

The Mountaineers should have swept Kansas this year. They rocked them in Morgantown, but blew a late lead in spectacular fashion in Lawrence later in the season. Their Press Virginia style seems to seriously bother the Jayhawks, and it could make for a raucous title game.

MORGANTOWN, WV - JANUARY 24: Head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers reacts to a call in the second half during the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at WVU Coliseum on January 24, 2017 in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
Bob Huggins (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Other Contenders:

  • Baylor: The Bears went 2-4 against the top-four of the conference, but their length and the talent of Johnathan Motley makes them an intriguing matchup
  • Iowa State: The Cyclones have won six of their last seven and three members of their core — Monte Morris, Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas — who have won two Big 12 tournament titles in their career. They’ve also have claimed wins against each of the other top teams in the league this year.

Sleeper: Oklahoma State

The Cowboys opened the Big 12 slate with six-straight losses, but then won nine of 10 before ending the season with losses to Iowa State and Kansas. Their defense is porous, but their top-ranked KenPom offense, led by point guard Jawun Evans, makes them a legitimate threat to reel off three wins in three days.

The Bubble Dwellers: One

  • Kansas State: Most projections have the Wildcats just on the bad side of the field of 68 line, which means they’ll probably have to score a win against Baylor in the quarterfinals to move the needle. Depending on what happens around the rest of the country, that one more win could be enough to earn a berth.

Defining moment of the season: Kansas erasing a 14-point deficit in the final three minutes at home against West Virginia. This is Peak Phog Allen.

CBT Prediction: Kansas

No. 1 Kansas rallies to beat Oklahoma 73-63 on Senior Night

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Frank Mason III scored 23 points in his final game at Allen Fieldhouse, Devonte Graham hit a series of crucial 3-pointers in the second half and top-ranked Kansas rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat Oklahoma 73-63 on Monday night.

Graham finished with 16 points and Josh Jackson had 11 points and 12 rebounds for the Big 12 champion Jayhawks (27-3, 15-2), who trailed 54-42 before finishing the game on a 31-11 run.

The Sooners (10-19, 4-13) were poised to spring a big upset on the day the Jayhawks ascended to No. 1 for the first time this season. But after they took their biggest lead with just over 10 minutes to go, Mason got the comeback started with a nifty basket inside.

He added a steal moments later to set up Lagerald Vick’s 3-pointer, and Jackson scored before Graham hit back-to-back shots from beyond the arc. And when Mason added another basket moments later, the Jayhawks had put together a 17-2 charge that gave them a 64-58 lead with about 5 minutes left.

Kansas slowly drew away to make senior night memorable for Mason, big man Landen Lucas and reserve guard Tyler Self, whose father – Kansas coach Bill Self – called him “my favorite Jayhawk of all time.”

VIDEO: Woodard game-winner topples No. 7 West Virginia

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Welcome back, Jordan Woodard.

The Oklahoma senior, playing in his just third game back from injury, went coast-to-coast to hit a game-winning shot with under 3 seconds to play against West Virginia to give the Sooners an 89-87 victory in overtime.

The Sooners had just 12 turnovers against Press Virginia while shooting 49 percent from the field. Woodard had a chance to win the game in regulation for Oklahoma after he made a shot and was fouled, but the 86.7 percent free-throw shooter missed the shot from the charity stripe. He finished with 20 points.

West Virginia, which was ranked No. 1 by KenPom, shot 43.7 percent overall and 28 percent from 3-point range.

It may be just one loss, but it can only be considered a significant setback for the Mountaineers in their quest to finally be the team to end Kansas’ 12 year run at the top of the Big 12. Not only is losing a home game a blow, but losing one to a team the Jayhawks have already beaten in Allen Fieldhouse is a double-whammy.

West Virginia is now two games out of first place, and still has two games remaining against Kansas, which is either good news or bad news, depending on how you look at it. The Mountaineers will have to sweep the Jayhawks, steal a different one they aren’t expected to on the road or hope Kansas falters like they really haven’t in over a decade.

Yeah, there’s a lot of season left, but you don’t want the math and probability to work against you like it does with a loss like this. That is unless Oklahoma isn’t the same team it’s been through the first third of the Big 12 season, which lessens the blow some. Let’s investigate that.

Oklahoma was largely able to win this game based on its ball security. The Sooners only coughed it up  on 14.6 percent of their possessions. West Virginia has been forcing turnovers at around a 25-percent clip in Big 12 play. Woodard presence made a huge difference there (even if he had five turnovers), and Oklahoma is now 2-1 with only a loss to Kansas since his return.

Are the Sooners still one of the Big 12’s weakest teams or does Woodard make them a serious contender amid the second tier of the league? If it’s the latter, a recalibration of expectations is probably in order for a conference already considered one of the most difficult give its 10-team, round-robin format.

Mason scores 28 as No. 2 Kansas beats Oklahoma 81-70

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NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Ready or not, Kansas is poised to jump to No. 1.

Frank Mason scored 19 of his 28 points in the second half, and the second-ranked Jayhawks rallied to beat Oklahoma 81-70 on Tuesday.

With No. 1 Baylor losing at West Virginia earlier in the night, Kansas will be in position to top the AP poll for the first time this season if it beats Oklahoma State on Saturday.

“We don’t deserve that,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I’ve coached for a while, and I’ve felt like there’s some teams that put in the time and the effort and the toughness to earn that, but I don’t feel like this team quite has.”

Josh Jackson scored 16 points for the Jayhawks (15-1, 4-0 Big 12), who have won 15 straight. Devonte’ Graham added 13 and Landen Lucas had 10 points and 13 rebounds.

Rashard Odomes and Kameron McGusty each scored 13 points for the Sooners (6-9, 0-4), who lost their seventh in a row.

Oklahoma trailed 21-14 before closing the first half on a 22-6 run to take a 36-27 lead at the break. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger called it his team’s best half of the season.

“Given the opponent, certainly, no question,” he said. “Kansas is a terrific ballclub. To be down a little bit early and come back and tie it and take the lead into the half was a good stretch, a very good stretch.”

Mason said Self was fired up at halftime.

“I can’t tell you the message, but it was — I can’t even say it,” he said. “Coach got onto us. I think we responded pretty well as a team. We’ve just got to come out better to start the game off the first half.”

Kansas took control and pushed its lead out to 15 in the second half behind Mason, who made 7 of 12 shots after the break.

“He’s terrific, just an outstanding player,” Kruger said. “He’s a winner. He takes things on his shoulders. He makes teammates around him better. He makes big-time plays in tough parts of games. Just an outstanding player.”

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The Jayhawks took sole possession of the Big 12 lead and maintained their series dominance over the Sooners, winning for the 16th time in the past 18 meetings.

Oklahoma: The Sooners were buoyed by scoring leader Jordan Woodard’s return from a leg injury. Oklahoma lost all four games without the senior guard, who had started 115 straight games before getting hurt. Woodard entered the night averaging 17.6 points. He finished with seven points in 24 minutes, and the Sooners played much better once he took the floor as a substitute.

“I really didn’t expect him to play that many minutes,” Kruger said. “I thought he got tired a couple of times, naturally, and got out. But I thought overall he was very, very good.”

STAT LINES

Kansas made 9 of 16 3-pointers in the second half and 12 of 27 overall. The Jayhawks shot 34 percent overall in the first half and 46 percent in the second. … It was Self’s 400th win at Kansas.

TURNING POINT

Oklahoma led by nine at halftime, but the Jayhawks opened the second half on a 13-0 run. A 3-pointer by Mason put Kansas up 56-47, and the Jayhawks maintained control from there.

STAR POWER

Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti and Thunder forward Nick Collison attended the game.

UP NEXT

Kansas hosts Oklahoma State on Saturday. The Cowboys pushed Baylor last Saturday before dropping a 61-57 decision in Waco.

Oklahoma hosts Texas Tech on Saturday. The Red Raiders have wins over current No. 10 West Virginia and No. 25 Kansas State to their credit.