Is Trae Young For Real?
Short answer – absolutely.
The star guard from Oklahoma has captivated college basketball audiences midway through the season.
With a rare blend of deep-range shooting and crafty playmaking skills, Young finds himself on track to become the first D-1 player in history to lead the nation in both points and assists. He’s led a previously unranked Oklahoma squad to wins over the likes of Oregon, USC, Wichita State, TCU and Texas Tech.
The freshman even showed the ability to persevere through a rough shooting night in OU’s recent win over the Red Raiders. After starting the game 1-of-12 from the field, Young posted 22 points after halftime in a come-from-behind victory.
A tight, explosive handle with NBA range typically adds up to a quality player at the next level. He has already drawn comparisons to generational talent Steph Curry over their shared skill of shooting off the dribble. However, Young is already more advanced in certain aspects of his game when compared to Curry at the same age.
Young generates 1.55 points per shot -- which is a higher mark than Curry achieved in any of his seasons at Davidson. Both players didn’t have the greatest of talents surrounding them, but Young is a more natural point guard with innately gifted passing skills.
The frosh from Norman, Oklahoma is also doing this against far tougher opponents than his counterpart. This level of competition will only rise as conference play ramps up.
Speaking of the Big 12…
Will Kansas' Big 12 Championship Streak Be Snapped?
The Jayhawks were absolutely rolling to start the year. Their first seven games equated to seven wins by an average margin of over 30 points. Then, Bill Self’s team hit a snag...and haven’t seemed to recover.
Back-to-back losses to Pac-12 schools showed Kansas' vulnerability (a late three-pointer by Svi Mykhialiuk helped narrowly avoid a third-straight defeat). The loss to Arizona State in particular has worked to erase the impenetrable aura of Allen Fieldhouse. It’s a long season, and the Jayhawks are always ready by the time conference tourneys roll around. However, there is certainly cause for concern.
For starters, the personnel isn’t what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Kansas. Devonte’ Graham isn’t Frank Mason. LaGerald Vick doesn’t have the same blue-chip talent of an Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson or Kelly Oubre. They don’t have a Perry Ellis (or even a Landen Lucas, for that matter) – a veteran big that can stabilize the team on both ends. Self famously said that his 2013 team was the “worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor,” but from a talent perspective, this squad isn’t too far off.
Additionally, the Big-12 is arguably better than it’s ever been during Kansas' run of 12 consecutive conference championships. Young and the Sooners have already been mentioned, but the Jayhawks will also be contending with eight other legitimately good teams. It's hard to believe that the Big-12 currently has three teams ranked in the Top-10, and Kansas isn't one of them! The conference is completely up in the air, and it might end up coming down to match-ups during the Big-12 Tournament.
Is the ACC No Longer the Nation's Top Conference?
North Carolina is coming off a National Championship win. Duke entered the year ranked No. 1, and will likely have a player (Marvin Bagley) selected Top-3 in the NBA Draft for the fifth-consecutive year. Virginia is currently ranked No. 3 nationally. Clemson is having their best start to a season (14-1) since 2009. Notre Dame is filled with battle-tested veterans. Miami and Florida State have even lived up to expectations. They wiped the floor with the Big Ten in their annual challenge -- winning 11 of 14 games.
On the surface, the ACC looks as strong as ever. With that said, the overall play of the other power conferences have quietly shifted the tide.
The Big-12 and the Big East have a chance to stake their claim as the top conferences in the sport. As previously mentioned, the Big-12 is stacked with five schools currently ranked in the Top-16. The Big East is the home to the nation's top school (Villanova). It also houses three other ranked programs that are consistent, experienced, and deep (Creighton, Xavier, and Seton Hall).
It’s a race for nationwide bragging rights, and the title picture is more open than ever. It doesn’t help when North Carolina has clearly regressed, and Duke isn’t looking as dominant as originally anticipated.
Is there a No. 1 Team?
Entering the year, it looked as if Duke would run rampant on the college basketball world. Their momentum was quickly dashed after losses to Boston College and NC State. Although Villanova currently occupies the top spot, no team has truly separated themselves from the pack.
The Blue Devils and the Wildcats stand on opposite ends of the spectrum as it pertains to being the best teams in the country. Duke is loaded with blue-chip NBA-caliber talent, while Villanova makes the absolute most out of their (relatively) middling talent.
Duke has looked sluggish at times throughout the year -- particularly in their loss to NC State. They remain the favorite to cut the nets in April because of their balanced starting lineup, but Coach K refuses to rely on his bench (despite having quality depth for the first time in years).
Villanova has flashed its signature efficiency this year (5th in nation in field-goal percentage, 11th in three-point percentage), but they don't have a whole lot of rebounding. Duly, their best shot-blocker might be 6'6" guard Mikal Bridges.
Other teams attempting to stake their claim as the nation's top school include perennial juggernaut Michigan State and two defensive-minded squadrons in West Virginia and Virginia. Conference play will help weed out the pretenders. As of now, it seems like the country is filled with a whole bunch of 2-seeds and not many 1-seeds.
Which Non-Traditional Powerhouses Can Survive?
When it comes to the top teams this season, it’d be remiss if we don’t mention the jobs Wichita State and Arizona State have done this year.
The Shockers entered the year with high expectations, and have followed through with victories over Marquette, Baylor and Oklahoma State. Their lone hiccups have been a one-point loss to Notre Dame, and a hotly-contested battle with Oklahoma. Getting forward Markis McDuffie back is key for the late-season stretch. With the junior suited up, the Shockers are as deep as any team.
Over in Tempe, Bobby Hurley’s Sun Devils have been the talk of the town after surging to a 12-0 start. This is largely thanks to a high-powered offensive attack featuring stud senior guard Tra Holder. They’ve since dropped two close road contests against Pac-12 competition (Arizona, Colorado), but memories of knocking off Xavier and Kansas are still fresh in the minds of many.
Elsewhere, Texas Tech, Seton Hall, Cincinnati and the aforementioned Xavier are quietly clawing their way up the rankings. With North Carolina, UCLA, Arizona, and Notre Dame struggling out of the gate, a slew of less-revered schools have a chance at seizing glory. Expect the Shockers to keep it up -- as Gregg Marshall is one of the very best coaches in the country. Xavier and Cincinnati’s experience should carry them through the year as well.
Sources: Ben Queen/USA TODAY Sports, Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports, Randy Sartin/USA TODAY Sports, Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports, Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports