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The real reason Don Bosco's Dylan Harper picked Rutgers basketball

There is one reason, above all the others, why Rutgers basketball just landed a commitment from the nation's second-ranked high school player in the Class of 2024.

Trust.

Dylan Harper and his family trust head coach Steve Pikiell and top assistant Brandin Knight.

Pikiell and Knight earned that trust over four years with Dylan’s older brother, Ron Harper Jr., embracing him as a two-star recruit out of Don Bosco Prep and developing him into an All-Big Ten wing and a pro who is now entering his second year of a two-way NBA contract with the Toronto Raptors.

But that development went beyond the court.

“Rutgers has been an immense influence on the young man he is today,” mom Maria Harper said in 2022, during Ron’s senior year on the banks. “When he was in high school I would say, ‘I want you to go play where the coach is excited to coach you and excited to mentor you.’ That’s exactly what we got from Steve and his staff. I couldn’t thank them more for the way they helped raise my son.”

They helped raise my son. That’s the biggest endorsement of all. It takes a village, of course, but for college athletes, the head coach is usually the final villager on that journey to adulthood. These teams spend so much time as a unit, the coach acts “in loco parentis” – in the place of a parent. That coach has to guide the athlete through various minefields, from public criticism and personality conflicts to injuries and slumps, not to mention the juggling of schoolwork and the temptations that come with campus life.

With the Harper family, Pikiell and Knight have proven firsthand to be reliable guides, in a way that Duke’s Jon Scheyer and Kansas’ Bill Self could not. Whatever name-image-likeness offers were on the table (between shoe companies and boosters who now can stuff recruits' pockets legally - Dylan was going to be getting handsomely compensated well beyond a scholarship wherever he wound up, including Rutgers), trust was the Scarlet Knights' trump card. Give the Harpers credit for factoring that intangible into the decision.

For Rutgers, the result is the program’s highest-ranked recruit in its biggest blockbuster class ever – or if you judge recruiting classes in retrospect, since Phil Sellers and Mike Dabney came aboard in the pre-ranking days of 1972. Those two would score more than 4,000 points and lead the Scarlet Knights to a Final Four. Coming out of Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, Sellers was known to be a big prize, and then-Rutgers assistant Dick Vitale sat next to his mother at seemingly every one of his high school games.

More: Rutgers basketball recruiting rankings: Dylan Harper gives Scarlet Knights top-three class

More: Dylan Harper family tree: Rutgers 5-star pledge the son of NBA veteran Ron Harper

Rutgers Scarlet Knights forward Ron Harper Jr. (24) and guard Geo Baker (0) during the senior day ceremony before the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Jersey Mike's Arena.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights forward Ron Harper Jr. (24) and guard Geo Baker (0) during the senior day ceremony before the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Jersey Mike's Arena.

"He recruited my mom," Sellers explained in 2021. "She loved Italian guys."

Recruiting the mom. Some things haven’t changed.

But some have. Sellers and Dabney had four years to prove themselves on the banks, peaking perfectly as seniors. It’s highly likely that Dylan Harper and fellow Rutgers commit Ace Bailey, the third-ranked 2024 prospect, will play together for just one season in Piscataway before the NBA comes calling for at least one of them. Expectations of immediate glory – Big Ten title contention and a run deep into the NCAA Tournament – and the accompanying pressure will be enormous.

This is new terrain for Pikiell, who relished (you might even say thrived on) defying the odds with Ron Harper Jr., Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell. Starting next fall he is no longer the underdog, but that’s ultimately the goal, right? Vitale offered Pikiell some advice along those lines back in 2016, shortly after his tenure began.

St. Joseph boys basketball at Don Bosco on Thursday, January 5, 2023. DB #2 Dylan Harper.
St. Joseph boys basketball at Don Bosco on Thursday, January 5, 2023. DB #2 Dylan Harper.

“There have been tendencies over the years where Rutgers has thought of themselves as mediocre, and when you think you’re mediocre, you’re going to be mediocre,” Vitale told Pikiell then. “If you think you’re great, you’ll be great.”

With Dylan Harper planting the flag in his home state and one of the nation's top-three recruiting classes scheduled to arrive in the fall of 2024, Rutgers has a chance to be great for the first time since Sellers and Dabney left town. But no journey is linear. For even the brightest prodigy there will be tough games, moments of doubt, a pressure to perform that is all new to a teenager.

That’s where trusting the coach - in loco parentis - comes into play. That’s why the Harpers remain loyal to Rutgers.

Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at jcarino@gannettnj.com.

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Dylan Harper: Why he picked Rutgers basketball, Steve Pikiell