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What Ryan Young’s potential departure means for Northwestern men’s basketball

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Front-court depth is a must-have that Chris Collins might not have.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

On March 24th, it was first reported by Verbal Commits that Northwestern basketball center Ryan Young would enter the transfer portal with two years of eligibility left. Young then confirmed his decision with Wildcat Report.

Hypothetically, if someone forced Chris Collins to cut ties with any player on his 2022-23 projected roster to create the men’s basketball equivalent of Brandon Joseph’s departure, Young might be his pick. The redshirt junior may not have been Northwestern’s best player this season, but his impending transfer will create a gaping hole in its front-court that could be fatal.

In the 2021-22 carousel, Young was statistically the team’s best non-starter. Playing just 17 minutes a game, the redshirt junior averaged nine points and just over four rebounds. He often energized the Wildcats with solid post play and offensive rebounding off the bench to establish a solid paint presence for both the first and second units.

Those phrases are thrown around for every backup center at every level. But, Young’s knack for providing sparks in potentially dire moments — often limiting strong opposing runs fueled by interior dominance — revitalized those descriptions. While subtle, Young’s impact helped the ‘Cats keep their reputation for failing to finish off upsets instead of earning a new one for failing to keep even the winnable games close.

You can see Young’s impact in NU’s 70-64 home loss against Purdue. The Boilermakers kept opening up medium-sized leads, yet they couldn’t blow the Wildcats out like they did four weeks earlier. When Zach Edey’s hot start opened up the floor and the floodgates, Young responded. He didn’t destroy Purdue’s momentum, but kept its runs small.

Just look back at his offensive rebound and ensuing score down six in the first half. Or his steal off a Jaden Ivey offensive board down nine. Or his assist to Ryan Greer for a three-pointer down 10. Teams like Northwestern that don’t have the firepower to deliver knockout punches need to at least answer them with small victories, and Young set the tone in that area last season.

Young’s departure means that another front-court depth piece needs to combat sudden adversity when Robbie Beran is off the floor. That not only includes in-game challenges that pop up, but also pregame ones. When the ‘Cats headed to East Lansing fresh off four straight losses and a Pete Nance injury, Young dropped 18 points and eight rebounds to lead their 64-62 upset over then-No. 10 Michigan State.

Picture a repeat of that game in 2023, with all the negative momentum coming in. Maybe Northwestern hangs in despite shooting just over 30 percent from the field, as it did against the Spartans. Who’s stepping up and keeping NU’s tournament hopes alive?

Elyjah Williams is gone, and Nance will likely pass on his extra year of eligibility. That leaves Luke Hunger – Northwestern’s lone recruit in its 2022 class – and rising junior Matt Nicholson as the only big men behind Beran should Young choose to depart.

Young’s decision to enter the transfer portal does give Hunger a great opportunity to earn prime rotational minutes right away. The incoming freshman’s solid perimeter shooting allows him to stretch the floor in ways Nicholson and Young cannot. It was often Nance (who shot 45 percent from deep) and Beran (36 percent) who stabilized a perimeter-centric offense that sometimes teetered on the brink of disaster last season. Hunger can build on that with the second unit and give its offense another dimension.

Those are hypotheticals, though, and it’s certain that Young’s potential exit creates a need for a strong paint presence off the bench. Whether he plugs in Nicholson, Hunger or an incoming transfer in Young’s absence, Collins has to address that hole to survive in the Big Ten and ultimately keep his job.