Penn State will look much different under Mike Rhoades. Is that a good thing?
Penn State AD Pat Kraft may or may not have been swinging for the fences when searching for Micah Shrewsberry’s replacement as the Nittany Lions basketball coach.
And he didn’t strike out by hiring Virginia Commonwealth coach Mike Rhoades, a Pennsylvania native who never had a losing record in 6 seasons at VCU. But he didn’t hit a home run, either.
This is a base hit that might stretch into a double with a little hustle. Or get the runner thrown out at second.
The hottest name on the market should be Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May, who is currently busy preparing for the Final Four. One assumes the Indiana graduate would eventually like to coach in the Big Ten, and working for another former IU grad in Kraft looked like a pretty ideal fit on the surface.
Of course, there’s also a flip side to that: anyone who has spent time in Big Ten basketball is all too aware of the challenges that face Penn State in the sport. At this point May has created enough goodwill at FAU to stay in Boca Raton until he reaches the age of an average Boca Raton resident.
So, another 45 years.
Maybe May will decide to do the Mark Few thing. With the excitement created by FAU’s Final Four run, Owls fans may start donating money to the program in their wills.
More likely, he has the ability to be very selective about where his next career move will take him. He recently admitted to accepting the FAU job sight unseen, which is not something he’ll be doing a second time.
At any rate, the current job market is a tepid one. Against all odds, Penn State was the best basketball job still available. Which is why it seemed possible that Kraft would be able to pull in a bigger fish than expected.
Rhoades is not that fish. However, he’s also not a “toss it back” catch.
The Mike Rhoades record
First, the good: Rhoades reached the NCAA Tournament 3 times in his 6 years at VCU.
Less encouraging: the Rams did not win any of those games. But they also did not play all of those games.
As an 8-seed in 2019, VCU was blown out 73-58 by Central Florida. The Rams were a 12-seed in this year’s tournament, losing 63-51 to Saint Mary’s. And in 2021, VCU was a 10-seed slated to play Oregon in the First Round. But multiple positive Covid tests left the Rams unable to play. Oregon was awarded a forfeit victory.
Given the choice, you’d prefer a hire with a proven March track record. Rhoades doesn’t have that. Though to be fair, Shrewsberry didn’t either as a head coach.
Another important detail from Rhoades’ VCU tenure: he had no connection to previous coach Will Wade, who went down in flames of scandal at LSU. Rhoades was hired to replace Wade after posting a single winning season at Rice, which is even more difficult than winning at Penn State.
Rice’s basketball history is so sparse that they hang up banners celebrating the school’s Nobel Prize laureates and Rhodes Scholars in the rafters. Really.
Rhoades’ Pennsylvania background likely endeared him the most to the people making this hire. He’s a Schuylkill County native who played at Division III Lebanon Valley. His dad was a state senator for 28 years.
In other words, this guy definitely has an opinion about Wawa and Sheetz. But the Pennsylvania ties also make Rhoades more like Pat Chambers and Ed DeChellis than Shrewsberry, which is very much reason to hold off on a parade.
A stylistic transition is guaranteed
There’s no assurance that Rhoades will continue to build on Shrewsberry’s groundwork. Nor is there any guarantee that he’ll fall short, even if it’s what history deems the most likely outcome.
There is, however, a 100 percent chance the Nittany Lions will look different than they did under Shrewsberry. And it will come as some shock to fans who enjoyed that style of basketball, because it pretty much guarantees Penn State will have massive roster turnover going into next season.
That was already going to happen with 5 key seniors leaving the program. But a Shrewsberry recruit figures to look very little like a Rhoades recruit.
The roster turnover will pertain mostly to, well, turnovers.
Shrewsberry’s 2 Penn State defenses ranked 353rd and 362nd nationally in forcing turnovers. The Nittany Lions were more interested in rebounding, ranking 39th and 60th. On offense, it was all about efficiency, ball movement, avoiding turnovers and draining 3-pointers.
A Rhoades team looks nothing like that. And frankly, that might be the biggest reason for Penn State fans to be skeptical of this transition.
Rhoades teams are built with full-court defensive intensity.
The Rams have been in the top 10 nationally in creating turnovers each of the past 5 seasons. That creates vulnerabilities under the glass — the Rams were never better than 250th in defensive rebounding. But it generally works out. VCU ranked in the top 15 in defensive efficiency 4 times in Rhoades’ tenure.
Offensively, Penn State will bear no resemblance at all to Shrewsberry’s system.
This year’s Penn State methodical offense produced the 7th-lowest turnover rate in the country. VCU’s more frenetic offense was 277th in turnovers.
Because they shot so many jumpers, the Lions rarely made it to the free-throw line, ranking 361st in free-throw rate. The Rams, far more interested in drawing contact, were 10th.
In Shrewsberry’s offense, 47.1% of 3-pointers were assisted — the 10th-highest rate in the country. Only 32.7% of VCU’s 3s were assisted, which ranked 304th.
Again, none of those things are automatic harbingers of doom or glory. But they do guarantee a major transition is about to take place for Penn State. That doesn’t bode well for Year 1.
Sometimes major transitions require massive amounts of patience.