For the first two months of the season, Trae Young was the best player in college basketball. In the past two months, however, Oklahoma’s freshman point guard rarely was the best player on the floor in any of his games.
Young’s 3-point shooting percentage declined while his turnover rate soared. The Sooners are 2-8 in their past 10 games and have not won away from home since Dec. 30. Still, Young leads the nation in scoring (27.4) and assists (8.8) and remains an entertainer, even if he’s not quite the second coming of Stephen Curry.
Deserved or not, Oklahoma is in the NCAA Tournament, and watching Young launch jumpers from long distance is a good way to tip off Thursday’s action at 9:15 a.m. in Las Vegas.
The Sooners are 2-point underdogs to Rhode Island, and money has been flowing on the Rams since Sunday night, when Charles Barkley was quick predict Young will be one-game-and-done in this tournament.
Young is all offense and no defense. He’s the primary reason Oklahoma ranks 38th in offensive efficiency and 83rd on the defensive end. An explosive scorer, he also turns it over 5.2 times per game and his 3-point shooting has dipped to 36 percent.
Initially, I liked Rhode Island, a 25-win team that is tougher defensively, in this matchup. But this scenario — a team is ripped all week by critics before responding with an impressive tournament performance — is too familiar. At this point, it might even be a surprise if Young does not shoot down the critics as the Sooners advance.
I’ll pass on the first game of the day. Here are five best bets:
* Virginia Tech (-2) over Alabama: The hottest freshman point guard in the nation is now Collin Sexton, who was sensational for the Crimson Tide in the first two games of the Southeastern Conference tournament, scoring 27 points against Texas A&M and 31 against Auburn. But Hokies coach Buzz Williams devises creative defensive schemes and his team is tougher in the paint on both ends. Virginia Tech’s victory at Virginia last month was no fluke. Alabama has few scoring options aside from Sexton, who will see a defense determined to cool him off.
* Houston (-4) over San Diego State: Is the Aztecs’ turnaround for real? San Diego State rides in with a nine-game win streak after conquering the Mountain West tournament. The return of senior point guard Trey Kell was the turning point. But the Aztecs are a poor 3-point shooting team, and the fact is they won a weak league. The Cougars come from a much tougher conference in which they traded punches with heavyweights Cincinnati and Wichita State. If senior guard Rob Gray (18.5 points per game) outplays Kell, the Cougars should cover.
* Davidson (plus-5½) over Kentucky: John Calipari won the SEC tournament again, but this Kentucky team is more inconsistent and not as talented as in recent seasons. Calipari is not even coaching the top offensive player in this game. Peyton Aldridge, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, averages 21.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and shoots 39.4 percent from 3-point range for Davidson, which scores 42 percent of its points on 3s. The 12th-seeded Wildcats could spoil a Kentucky-Arizona showdown in the second round.
* Buffalo (plus-9) over Arizona: Underpaid 7-foot-1 freshman Deandre Ayton (20.3 points, 11.5 rebounds) will get a double-double and be a matchup nightmare for the Bulls. But the Wildcats’ guards could be their own problem. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is tiny and Allonzo Trier is overrated. The Bulls run and gun (84.8 points per game) with four players averaging more than 14 points. The FBI and Buffalo’s 3-point shooting are reasons to make Sean Miller sweat.
* South Dakota State (plus-8) over Ohio State: The high-scoring Jackrabbits (84.9 points per game) are a popular underdog pick, which can be a red flag, but “The Dauminator” is capable of delivering. Mike Daum is a 6-9 forward who averages 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds and shoots 42 percent from 3-point range. He could outshine Buckeyes star Keita Bates-Diop and put a scare into a fragile Big Ten favorite.
* AAC Over 5 Tournament Wins: Cincinnati is capable of making a Final Four run in the South, especially with Virginia suffering a key injury loss this week. Wichita State and Houston are solid first-round favorites that will each win at least one game. The key to winning this wager will come in the second round, when the Shockers face West Virginia and the Cougars face Michigan in potential matchups. All three AAC teams are tough enough to survive the first weekend. Over five wins is an even-money prop at the South Point sports book.
* Gonzaga (-150) to reach Sweet 16: The Zags’ big, versatile forwards — 6-10 Killian Tillie, 6-9 Johnathan Williams and 6-8 Rui Hachimura — are difficult for any opponent to handle. Gonzaga, a double-digit favorite in the first round, will take down the South Dakota State-Ohio State winner in the second round to cash this ticket at a cheap price.