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Alabama slowed down Trae Young to beat Oklahoma but the Sooners have the higher ceiling


Michael Chang

Alabama used a physical defensive effort to hold Player of the Year favorite Trae Young to below his season averages as the Crimson Tide picked up a huge 80-73 win over No. 12 Oklahoma on Saturday afternoon.

Using multiple defenders and face-guarding Young the length of the floor on many possessions, Alabama’s defense wore down the star freshman guard as he finished with 17 points and eight assists -- well below his season averages. Looking visibly frustrated at times, Young faced constant double teams and traps from the Crimson Tide defense as the freshman faced a long and athletic defense that made it tough for him to make plays off the dribble. Young didn’t score the first 11 minutes he played. With his team down 10 with over a minute remaining, Young finished the game on the bench.

In a huge matchup of star freshman point guards that drew a sell-out crowd and over 50 NBA scouts in attendance, Alabama’s floor general, Collin Sexton, had a strong outing with 18 points on 8-for-14 shooting to pace the Crimson Tide to the home win. Sexton doesn’t get the hype that Young is getting on a national level this season, but he was stellar at times in this one. Defending Young in some instances, Sexton played a solid overall floor game as he was in total control on offense while helping to limit his counterpart.

That’s the major difference between these two teams. The ceilings of their star freshmen point guards are at entirely different levels. That makes for an entirely different long-term trajectory for these two teams.

Young had an “off” game and still finished with 17 and 8 as his team came up short in a hostile road environment against an NCAA-caliber opponent. Sexton finished with 18 points, while getting more help around him, to lead his team to a hard-fought win at home. When Young is rolling and playing at his best, Oklahoma can knock off any team in the country on any night. When Sexton is playing at his best, Alabama can knock off some teams at home on some nights.

Young might have had the “off” game but he is still far and away the better player and bigger offensive threat this season. Oklahoma can still count on him to be productive in every game he plays. Young has an ability to take over a game that is second to none in college basketball. Sexton is still a big enough question mark with his consistency that the Crimson Tide can’t rely exclusively on him to lead them to victory.

There have been plenty of times this season that Sexton has finished in single digits while showing limited production. Saturday’s game was the second time all season Young was held below 20 points -- and his minimum total for a game was the 15 points he had in the season opener.

This is not at all a knock on Sexton -- an outstanding player who can erupt for 30 or 40 points on a good night. He has a bright NBA future himself. But Young is putting up historic numbers while beating teams like Wichita State on the road and Kansas in conference play.

Of course, basketball is also a team game and the argument about star point guards is a small part of the overall equation. But the main takeaway is this: Oklahoma has a superstar-caliber threat in Young that makes teams change entire gameplans. Alabama has an all-conference player in Sexton who can lead in stretches if his perimeter jumper is hot.

Regardless of future predictions, this is a huge win for Alabama. They’ve now earned a fourth top-50 win -- with the others coming against Rhode Island, Texas A&M and Auburn -- as it looks like the Crimson Tide are currently solidly in the Field of 68. Leading for nearly the entire game, Alabama used an impressive 13-0 run in the second half to build a decent lead before running clock and letting its defense do the rest.

But Alabama doesn’t seem like the kind of high-ceiling team that can make a run in the tournament. At least not yet. It took Alabama’s best game in front of a raucous crowd to take down a good team like Oklahoma when Young had an off night. Credit head coach Avery Johnson’s game plan and the Crimson Tide’s other players for also stepping up. Herbert Jones looked like a viable rotation threat with 14 points and strong two-way play while Braxton Key knocked down two important three-pointers to maintain a late lead.

It’s unlikely we see these two teams play again this season. But the Big 12/SEC Challenge gave us a solid non-conference glimpse at two star point guards and two tournament teams and where they might be headed. Alabama might have scored the win in this one, but even in a loss, Oklahoma’s outlook is still looking better thanks to Trae Young’s ceiling.