Can Ace Baldwin Jr. carry Penn State to the NCAA Tournament… or even the NIT?

Without Kanye Clary in the starting lineup, Ace Baldwin Jr. has turned into the best guard in the Big Ten, but is that enough for the Nittany Lions to make noise down the stretch?

Penn State Nittany Lions guard Ace Baldwin Jr (1)
Penn State Nittany Lions guard Ace Baldwin Jr (1) / Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, Penn State men’s basketball kicked off one of the toughest stretches of its season with a road test against Northwestern. Mike Rhoades’ Nittany Lions rode a three-game win streak into the matchup but fell to 12-13 (6-7) with a 68-63 loss. 

Next up, Penn State hosts Michigan State on Wednesday, plays Nebraska in Lincoln on Saturday, and then hosts No. 14 Illinois on Wednesday, February 21. Those are three of the top six teams in the Big Ten, and against third-place Northwestern, Rhoades made it very clear who he’s hitching his wagon to for the stretch run. 

Before Kanye Clary missed two games with an injury, he was the focal point of the team’s offense and was averaging over 18 points a game. While he was gone, Rhoades leaned on his longtime point guard from VCU, Ace Baldwin Jr. who has now averaged 19 points and 39 minutes a game across Penn State’s last four. Clary returned for the final two of that four-game stretch, and scored eight points, then put up a goose egg in 14 minutes at Northwestern. 

Clary was injured on January 27th against Minnesota and through that point in the year, Penn State was 156th in offensive efficiency at 1.037 points per possession and 165th in defensive efficiency at 1.017 points per possession. However, since Clary’s injury, Penn State has jumped to 142nd in offensive efficiency (1.046) and 147th in defensive efficiency (1.009). While the numbers are small, those are significant improvements in a yearlong average with just four additional games added to the sample. 

The Nittany Lions have gotten better not just by taking the ball out of Clary’s hands, but by putting it in Baldwin’s. The former A10 player of the year isn’t just averaging 19 points a game over his last four, he’s also averaging eight assists, 3.5 rebounds, 3.25 steals, and is shooting 48.9% from the field and 47% from three over that stretch. 

If you extrapolate those numbers across the entire season, Baldwin would rank third in the Big Ten in scoring, first in assists, and he already ranks first in steals. It’s clear now who Penn State’s best player is and that playing this way is the team’s best chance to work its way into NIT contention and maybe even sniff a bid to the big dance with a run through the Big Ten Tourney. 

It’s concerning that it took Clary getting injured for Rhoades to realize that the guy who was his best player for three years at VCU was also his best player at Penn State. Though, in fairness, Baldwin was in a shooting slump at the beginning of the year, so Clary provided offense through it. But Clary’s glaring defensive limitations also overworked Baldwin on that end of the floor. 

Now, with D’Marco Dunn and Nick Kern next to him in the backcourt, Penn State has enough size to defend at a high level, as they did on Sunday, holding Northwestern’s point guard and the fourth leading scorer in the conference, Boo Buie, to 4-14 shooting. That defensive uptick has enabled Baldwin’s offensive surge and could carry Penn State to a big win or two in its upcoming gauntlet. 

In all reality, Baldwin doesn’t have enough help to drag Penn State to either tournament in Rhoades’s first season, but he does deserve recognition on the All-Big Ten defensive team and one of the two All-Big Ten teams at season’s end. 

Unless the Nittany Lions win their next three, any hope of an at-large bid goes out the window, but with Baldwin playing like the best guard in the entire Big Ten, they’ll have a puncher’s chance in every game.