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Top 5 performances of the 2020-21 Rutgers men’s basketball season

Several standout efforts helped make it a special year.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

In a season unlike any other, the Rutgers men’s basketball team achieved historic heights on its way to its first NCAA Tournament in 30 years. Along the way, fans were witnesses to incredible performances in some of the biggest games of the season. Here are the five best performances that we saw from the 2020-21 season:

Honorable Mention: Myles Johnson 10 points, 10 rebounds, 7 blocks vs. Indiana

Before I reveal my top five picks, I want to bring up an honorable mention that includes a player that will be sorely missed next year.

Myles Johnson put together several great performances last season that sometimes did not translate to box score numbers. However, on senior night vs. Indiana, Johnson put together a defensive masterpiece that led to a monster late-season win. He tallied a career-high seven blocks to go along with one of his eight double-doubles on the season. With all of the numbers, Johnson’s defensive presence in the middle did not waver in this game, a part of the game that does not show up in the stat-sheet, but a part of the game that was absolutely crucial for Rutgers’ overall success last season. Johnson was far and away one of the most consistent and reliable big man in the Big Ten last season, and in a conference filled with impactful big men that included names like Luka Garza, Hunter Dickinson and Kofi Cockburn, Johnson was the big man that walked away with Big Ten all-defensive team honors.

Johnson recently graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers with a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering, a field that he has decided to pursue at UCLA’s distinguished Samueli School of Engineering next year.

5. Caleb McConnell 13 points, 10 rebounds in NCAA Tournament 1st round vs. Clemson

Throughout the season, Caleb McConnell often made incredible impact on games while not necessarily jumping off the stat-sheet. A good example for McConnell’s unsung impact came in the 76-72 win vs. Minnesota on Feb. 4, where McConnell hit a crucial three-pointer and played tough defense down the stretch on Marcus Carr to help seal a pivotal win.

Keeping up with this theme, McConnell shined his brightest on college basketball’s biggest stage. Finishing with 13 points and 10 rebounds, McConnell’s toughness was absolutely crucial to Rutgers securing its first NCAA Tournament victory since 1983. All night, McConnell was active on the defensive end, diving on the floor for 50/50 balls that come to matter so much in single-elimination tournaments like March Madness. Additionally, nine of McConnell’s 13 points came in the second half, including a layup with 4:30 left which kept the Scarlet Knights ahead by four points.

McConnell’s performance was exactly what Rutgers needed to beat Clemson. The game lived up to its billing of a hard-nosed defensive battle between two determined teams, and without McConnell’s hustle plays and clutch baskets down the stretch, it is very possible that the game could have ended up in a Clemson win.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Rutgers at Clemson Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

4. Montez Mathis 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 three-pointers in shorthanded win vs. Purdue

Looking back on the Scarlet Knights’ NCAA Tournament résumé, there were two games that stood out to me as wins that pushed us over the edge into the tournament. One of them was the early-season victory vs. Illinois and the other was the shorthanded victory over Purdue, a victory that could be thanked in large part to Montez Mathis.

It is fair to say that Mathis dealt with shooting struggles for a large part of the season, but with Ron Harper Jr. and Cliff Omoruyi sidelined with injuries, Mathis turned in his best outing of the season as he nailed five three-pointers and turned in 25 points on top of his always reliable defense en-route to a 81-76 win against the eventual No. 4 seed in the South region.

This win served as a testament to what last year’s team was about and the type of program Steve Pikiell has built in Piscataway. A myriad of injuries plagued the team at this time and forced them to dig deep if they wanted the win. While Harper Jr. and Omoruyi were officially sidelined, Geo Baker and Jacob Young also were playing through their own injuries at the time. For Baker, he was working his way back from his own ankle injury that he suffered on opening night and Young’s status was up-in-the-air due to a nasty spill that most of us remember against Ohio State.

Nevertheless, with the help of a stellar performance from Mathis, Rutgers was able to gut out the program’s second-most impressive win of the regular season. As for Mathis, he recently transferred to St. John’s University to continue his college career, but he did finish his career with the Scarlet Knights on a high note with 10 points against Houston in the Round of 32.

3. Geo Baker 20 points, 10 assists and career-high six threes on senior night vs. Indiana

Geo Baker, big shot maker.

The face of Pikiell’s Rutgers rebuild put up yet another memorable performance in a pivotal late season matchup vs. Indiana. Shortly after Baker accepted his senior night awards and recognition, he went to work torching the Indiana defense, scoring 20 points, dishing out 10 assists and drilling a career-high six three pointers in a game that the Scarlet Knights desperately needed to stay afloat in the late-season race to the NCAA Tournament.

For Baker, this game served as a microcosm for his entire career at Rutgers. Throughout his four seasons, Baker, time and time again, has stepped up to the plate in the most crucial of moments; think the Big Ten Tournament his freshman year, his clutch shot vs. Ohio State in his sophomore year and his game-winning shot vs. Nebraska in his junior year, to name a few moments. My personal favorite Geo Baker moment came in the 2019-2020 regular season finale at Purdue with a trip to the NCAA Tournament on the line. In that game, Baker hit clutch shot after clutch shot in front of a raucous Mackey Arena to secure the Scarlet Knights’ place in the not-to-be 2020 NCAA Tournament. It was one of the greatest clutch performance I have ever seen.

Baker declared for the 2021 NBA Draft while maintaining his eligibility and has until July 7 to decide if he will utilize his extra year of eligibility to return to Piscataway.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Rutgers vs Indiana Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

2. Jacob Young 23 points, 7 assists and dominant overtime period to clinch the NCAA Tournament @ Minnesota

During this past season, I covered the men’s team for the Daily Targum, and in nearly all of my game previews and recaps that I wrote, Jacob Young was worthy of recognition for his play. He, in my opinion, was the team’s most consistent player all season.

For all of his great moments from this season, Young’s finest hour came in the biggest of spots: at Minnesota in yet another regular season finale where an NCAA Tournament berth was on the line. Entering the game, the Scarlet Knights were staring at the very real possibility of falling down to the NCAA Tournament bubble after a humiliating loss to Nebraska. However, Young would refuse to let Rutgers go down on that Saturday afternoon. He finished with his second 20 point performance of the season and a masterful overtime period where he scored or assisted on 10 of the Scarlet Knights’ 14 points.

Young also made quite possibly the biggest play of the entire season in the final moments of regulation. Off of a Geo Baker turnover with 20 seconds to go, Minnesota guard Marcus Carr was running wide open, ahead of any Rutgers player on the fast break getting ready to jam in a go-ahead dunk that would've capped off an improbable Minnesota comeback in the final minutes. Instead, Young momentarily turned into an NFL cornerback as he jumped in front of Eric Curry’s pass to blow up the potential fastbreak opportunity and give Rutgers a chance to seal the game in overtime. I have attached the clip of Young’s steal below, the clip starts at the 18:45 mark.

Young was the first player to announce his departure from the program after the season, and after originally entering into the 2021 NBA Draft, Young decided to transfer to the University of Oregon for a sixth season of college basketball.

  1. Ron Harper Jr. 28 points, 9 rebounds, 5 three-pointers vs. Illinois

It’s hard to understate the rhythm Ron Harper Jr. was in to start the season.

In the midst of a string of stellar performances to start the year, Harper Jr. turned in his best performance of the season and, in my opinion, the best performance by a Scarlet Knight this season. The outing came in an early-season top-25 matchup vs. No. 13 Illinois, a high-profile billing against a future No. 1 seed where Rutgers had everything to gain in terms of confidence and respect amongst the nation. In 35 minutes, Harper Jr. scored 28 points, grabbed nine rebounds and cashed in five three-pointers for a third consecutive game to guide Rutgers to a thrilling 91-88 victory over Illinois. The victory proved to be Rutgers’ signature win of the season and the crown jewel of the Scarlet Knights’ NCAA Tournament résumé when it came time to draw up NCAA Tournament brackets. Without Harper Jr.’s stellar performance, this signature win would have been possible.

Further, this game put the college basketball world on notice to two things. First, with a top-25 win, fans across the country began to recognize that Rutgers was a legit program that could make serious noise in the NCAA Tournament. Second, with the win and Harper Jr.’s performance, Harper Jr. was catapulted into All-American and Wooden Award talks, as he was following up on several impressive performances already to start the season. Harper Jr. made it as far as Late Season Top 20 Watch List for the Wooden Award, and he ended up finishing third team all-conference at the end of the season.

Harper Jr. has followed the same route as Geo Baker in declaring for the 2021 NBA Draft while maintaining his college eligibility and has until July 7 to make a decision. Both he and Baker did not receive invitations to participate in the G League or NBA combine events.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports