With the leaders of college basketball providing some hope recently about their proactive approach to ensuring the NCAA Tournament will take place in 2021, it’s time to start focusing on keys for the Rutgers men’s basketball team to earn its first dance invite in 30 years. We all know the streak was set to fall last spring before COVID-19 destroyed that reality. Hopefully, the Scarlet Knights will get an opportunity to end it once and for all this spring.
While we don’t know what this upcoming season will actually look like from a schedule perspective, we do know that Rutgers returns seven of its top eight contributors from its first 20 win regular season campaign in 37 years. In addition, head coach Steve Pikiell welcomes a four member recruiting class that was ranked 40th nationally and 6th in the Big Ten.
It was obvious to every Rutgers fan last season that Geo Baker had developed into an indispensable leader who absolutely had to have the ball in his hands down the stretch of every close game. Ron Harper Jr. made progress as a player who has the highest ceiling on the team, but still has some steps to take in what could be a special junior season. Myles Johnson, Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy all had moments that helped Rutgers to its first winning season in Big Ten play since joining the league six years prior. With the team finishing sixth nationally in defensive efficiency, it’s actually possible for them to be even better this season with the addition of top 50 recruit Cliff Omoruyi, who could develop into an elite shot blocker and rim defender even as a freshman.
While the development of each of those players is obviously important to continued progress this season, Jacob Young is the one who could potentially raise the ceiling the highest for Rutgers in 2021.
The transfer from Texas showed a tremendous first step off the dribble from day one, but also showed some rust that was understandable after sitting out the previous season last November and December. Making matters worse, his fearless attitude led to reckless play on the court that made him a frustrating player to watch during the first part of the season.
In the first six games of the season, all against inferior opponents, Young began his Rutgers career shooting just 12 of 33 from the floor and committed a team high 17 turnovers. A few games later during the second loss of the season at Pitt, Young went scoreless and committed 3 fouls and 3 turnovers in 18 minutes of action.
Through the first 12 games of the season, Young had looked mostly out of control and totally out of sync offensively. He averaged just 6.3 points on 32.9% shooting, 2.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, and a team high 2.8 turnovers per game. It was clear he had legitimate talent, but Young struggled to harness it to be effective, something that plagued him at Texas in his first two seasons.
It wasn’t until the last game of 2019 against Division II Caldwell that Young appeared to relax and stopped overthinking it, letting the game come to him. It led to a breakout 23 point, 8 rebound, 6 assists performance on 9 of 12 shooting that finally got him on track.
With Baker out the next three games due to injury, all Big Ten contests, Young stepped up in a major way. Averaging 15.0 points on 47% shooting and 4.0 assists in 26 minutes per game, Rutgers beat Nebraska and a ranked Penn State team by double digits before falling by one possession at ranked Illinois. Young’s impact was immense over that stretch of play.
Young had an up and down Big Ten campaign overall. He played poorly in a close losses on the road against ranked foes Iowa and Wisconsin, as well as letting the team down by missing the game at Maryland due to a team violation (DWI). He was a major spark off the bench that spurred major comebacks in close losses against Michigan at Madison Square Garden and at Ohio State after Rutgers seemingly out of the game.
Young's ability to disrupt one of the best point guards in the country in Zavier Simpson was impressive, as was his pushing the pace offensively that led to a ferocious run down the stretch against the Buckeyes. However, it was the last three games of the season that cemented Young as a difference maker with the potential to elevate Rutgers to the next level as a team.
In the last second stomach punch loss at Penn State by 1 point, Young was the only player to score in double digits with a team high 13 points, as well as led the team with 5 assists and 3 steals. The last week of the season saw Rutgers blowout a top ten team in Maryland at the RAC and stun Purdue in West Lafayette on senior day to earn the NCAA’s Team of the Week honors.
Young came off the bench early against the Terps and sparked a game changing 15-4 run by making his first four shots. He finished with a team high 17 points, making 7 of 10 shots from the floor, while adding 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals. While he missed two free throws in the final minute of regulation at Purdue, he hit a key three-pointer to give Rutgers the lead at the half and dunked on 7 foot-3 Matt Haarms before converting a three-point play in OT. He backed up Baker and Harper Jr. as the third player on the team to score in double digits in producing a season defining victory.
For the season, Young finished with the worst offensive rating per KenPom by far of any regular player for Rutgers. He shot just 41.2% from the floor, 27.7% from three-point range and 59.1% from the free throw line while also committing a team high 63 turnovers. However, he was tied for a team high in steals, was third in assists and fourth in scoring despite averaging the seventh most minutes on the team last season. Also, he committed just 5 turnovers in his last six games of the season, showing major improvement in taking care of the basketball.
The best teams in college basketball have a third player who can take over games at times. It’s clear Rutgers is led by Baker and Harper Jr., both All-Big Ten performers last season. It was also evident that when Young was on top of his game, Rutgers was a much tougher team to beat in Big Ten play.
Young’s ability to penetrate off the dribble, his knack for scoring in bunches and his ability to be a lockdown on the ball defender gives the Scarlet Knights a player with a unique skill set compared to anyone else on the roster. Some of the best basketball that Rutgers played last season came during stretches of games where Young was the best player on the court.
Entering his last collegiate season as a fifth year senior, this is Young’s last chance to put it all together. If he can become a more consistent contributor by playing under control, minimize mistakes and not force bad shots while staying out of trouble off the court, he could have a tremendous season and fulfill the potential he showed in high school as a 4-star recruit.
While Young has a lot of questions to answer on the court next season, if he could simply be the player he was from January on last season, it would mark improvement and make this team better. If he could take it a step further and become a stabilizing third star behind Baker and Harper Jr., Rutgers could produce its best season in decades.