Young’s guns may finally match his energy (Basketball Column)

Jim Martinho

I’m going to give The Daily a lot of material this season,” Jitim Young tells me at Big Ten Media Day last month. It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and the Northwestern table is getting the least media attention of any team not named Penn State.

Across the table, backcourt mate T.J. Parker rests his head on his forearms and lets his eyes close. But Young is beaming, holding court at the table and fielding questions with the same energy he displays on the parquet.

Is he concerned that he’ll have to do the bulk of the rebounding for the Wildcats again?

“I’ll do a little bit of everything — shooting, rebounding, passing,” Young says. “I’m a 6-2 Kevin Garnett.”

Isn’t he worried that NU lacks a true center?

“I like to think of us like the Dallas Mavericks. They don’t have one big man in the middle.”

(So does that make Davor Duvancic NU’s Dirk Nowitzki?)

As much fun as NU’s senior guard has off the court, Young won’t reach full release until he takes the floor Friday against Colorado. There may be better players in the Big Ten, but nobody has more fun playing basketball than Young.

Call it raw energy, call it a playground mentality, but whatever it is, Young has it. Cultivated through a life of Chicago basketball, from elementary school to the cutthroat high school competition at Gordon Tech, his attitude should rub off on teammates like a contagious disease.

But that hasn’t always been the case.

Last season, Young became frustrated that his teammates didn’t match his intensity on the court in the Cats’ 11-17 season. He never mentioned any names, but NU’s trio of seniors had to absorb some of the blame. Forwards Winston Blake and Jason Burke hail from Texas, where football is king. Injury-riddled center Aaron Jennings grew up in Iowa, where even the corn grows a little slower.

Now Blake and Burke are working in banks and law firms, and Jennings shipped out to play pro ball in (where else?) Croatia. This is Young’s team now.

Stepping in for the graduated seniors are high-flying Mohamed Hachad, sharpshooting Vedran Vukusic and the much more mobile tandem of Duvancic and Vince Scott at center.

From the looks of NU’s two exhibition games, Young might finally be surrounded by a group that can match his energy level every game. These Cats will hardly resemble the stereotypical Carmody team — methodically moving the ball in the Princeton offensive tradition. Led by Young and Parker, this team is going to run and gun, push the ball up the floor and improvise on the go.

We got a taste of the newer, quicker Cats in last season’s win over Indiana. Hachad was making steals off the full-court press, Parker was firing outlet passes off the break — and Young was loving every minute of it.

It’s the little things that have infused his teammates with Young’s energy: Mixing it up in the paint with men six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. Pumping his fist toward the Wisconsin student section after a basket. Jawing at point guards as they bring the ball up the floor.

“That Young is a tough fuck,” the coach of one of NU’s preseason opponents said after the game. “But he doesn’t fit on this team.”

Actually, Young’s toughness finally meshes with this NU squad. And even if he can’t take the Cats to the Promised Land (the NCAA Tournament, or at least the NIT), he’ll still make games more exciting. And for someone who has so much fun playing the game, isn’t it only fair he makes it as fun for us to watch?