Despite a gut-wrenching three-point loss to end its season in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Rutgers men’s basketball team will look back on the 2020-2021 season as a year filled with program-defining accomplishments and historic milestones reached.
Most notably, the Scarlet Knights (16-12, 10-10) put an end to long-standing NCAA Tournament droughts, including a three-decade-long absence from the tournament as well as a 38 year-long hiatus without an NCAA Tournament victory, a streak that was broken with a 60-56 win over Clemson in the tournament’s first round.
“I feel like our defense won (the game) for us, getting stops on the defensive end,” junior guard Caleb McConnell said after the win over the Tigers (16-8, 10-6). “We just wanted to stick to Rutgers basketball and do what we do. Get stops, play with each other and finish out tough games like that.”
In addition to the NCAA Tournament milestones reached, Rutgers also achieved new heights in Big Ten conference play. Namely, the Knights reached double-digit conference wins for the second consecutive season and earned their highest seed ever attained in the Big Ten Tournament, securing the seventh seed.
Moreover, the program did not encounter a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) shutdown throughout the entire season, a remarkable feat when considering the challenges of this unprecedented college basketball season.
“The sacrifices their families made and they made (are) truly unbelievable,” head men’s basketball coach Steve Pikiell said. “Our guys have been together since June. Very difficult to be on a streak the way we were of never having a pause or never having an issue with (COVID-19). Very thankful.”
Rutgers finished the season led in scoring by junior guard Ron Harper Jr., who averaged 14.9 points per game (PPG) to lead the team. Senior guard Jacob Young followed close behind, scoring 14.1 PPG to go along with a team-high 3.4 assists per game and a conference-leading 1.81 steals per game.
Senior guard Geo Baker was the only other player to average double-digit points for the season, averaging 10.4 PPG.
Junior center Myles Johnson made valuable contributions to help the Knights as well. Johnson led the team in rebounding and blocks per game, averaging 8.5 rebounds per contest and swatting 2.4 shots per game in a conference that finished the regular season with four teams ranked inside the top 10 of the AP Top 25 Poll.
“I think just playing in the Big Ten in general, it’s the best conference there is. We have the toughest schedule out of all those other schools,” Johnson said. “Playing every team in the Big Ten prepared us for the Tournament better than any other league could have prepared us.”
With the 2020-2021 season now in the rearview mirror, it is unclear what the roster will look like for next season. With the NCAA granting winter student-athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the ongoing strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, every player, including the six graduating seniors, has the opportunity to return to the program next year.
So far, two student-athletes have announced their decisions regarding their future. Johnson announced via his Twitter account that he has decided to enter his name into the transfer portal, while Young also announced that he entered the transfer portal as well as the 2021 NBA draft.
“I appreciate that the NCAA gives them an extra year (of eligibility),” Pikiell said. “If they all want to come back, I would be the happiest … coach in America.”
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