The no. 21 Rutgers men’s basketball team overcame a late deficit in Tuesday night’s victory with a 17-4 run that put Syracuse away for an important non-conference triumph.
The Scarlet Knights saw their veteran core step up in a big way and were led by Ron Harper Jr.’s 26 points behind 5 three-pointers. However, it was Jacob Young who solved the riddle of the Syracuse 2-3 zone defense, as he sliced and diced his way through it to lead Rutgers to 45 second half points. He was able to penetrate and get to the rim, finishing with 18 points on 6 of 13 shooting. But it was his ability to drive and kick it out to open teammates, including assisting on all of Harper Jr.’s five makes from behind the arc, most of which were wide open looks.
Young delivered 10 assists, a career high, while producing the first double-double of his career. It was the key factor as to why Rutgers assisted on 19 of 28 made field goals in the game. His 5 of 6 night from the free throw line helped the Scarlet Knights deliver it’s best performance from the charity stripe all season (14 of 18 for 77%).
He also spurred the comeback late in the game and despite having 5 turnovers on Tuesday night, he was able to come through in the end by keeping the Syracuse zone off balance. Asked what adjustments he made in the second half, Young stated, “Being more composed. Taking my time with it and looking for openings that come. Just like we practiced all week. Ball movement to move the defense, shifting the defense. Once that happens, then get off quick passes to attack the zone. Coach was preaching that to us all week and that was my approach to the game.”
Young’s on the ball defense was a strong suit once again, as he swiped 5 steals and held guard Joe Girard III to just 3 points on 1 of 8 shooting, including only 1 of 6 from three-point range. The Syracuse sophomore averaged over 12 points per game last season and was close to that at the start of this season, all while averaging around 33% from behind the arc. His off night led to the Orange shooting just 26.9% from three-point range in the loss.
Head coach Steve Pikiell said of Young’s defense, “Joe Girard’s really good. We recruited him out of high school, I think I saw him score 48 points in a high school game. He obviously scored 30 points as a freshman in games, a bunch of 20 point nights. Jacob’s fast and did a really good job getting through all the screens and making his life really difficult.”
As for how Young impacted Rutgers on the offensive end, Pikiell said, “I also love the fact he was really passing the basketball. He made some great plays for us, he brings terrific energy, he has to share the game and he scores.”
Pikiell’s overall assessment of Young’s play was that “He really did a great job on the defensive end of the floor, so he had a great game. His first double-double, so proud of him.”
Young was the most important player on the floor in the win over Syracuse due to his impact on disrupting the zone defense through his quickness, ability to penetrate, find open teammates, as well as his willingness to be a distributor with the basketball. Rutgers doesn’t get nearly as many good looks at the basket if it were not for Young. There is no doubt Harper Jr. is emerging as a star and was deft at slipping into creases of the zone but he relied in a big way on Young to create scoring opportunities for him with his effectiveness to drive and dish to the open shooter.
Through four games, Young is averaging 16.0 points, 6.8 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 3.3 steals while shooting 47% from the floor, 40% from three-point range and 75% from the foul line (12-16). He is committing too many turnovers with 3.5 per game, but he showed tremendous improvement in that area down the stretch last season and hopefully can do the same this winter.
I wrote before the season that Young’s potential to emerge as the third key player behind Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. was essential to this team’s success this season. Instead with Baker out, Young has stepped up even more to carry a bigger than expected load for Rutgers. Whenever Baker does return, he’ll find an improved player with renewed confidence alongside him in the backcourt.