Over three seasons at VCU, Mike Rhoades learned a lot about his point guard, and Ace Baldwin Jr. learned a lot about winning. The duo led the Rams to two NCAA Tournament appearances in 2021 and 2023. Then, Rhoades led Baldwin to Happy Valley last offseason.
So, it’s no surprise that when Penn State had its back against the wall at 9-11 after back-to-back losses to Ohio State and Minnesota, Rhoades leaned on Baldwin to save the season.
The Nittany Lions came into last week in 11th in the Big Ten with two road games against Rutgers and Indiana on the schedule and without leading scorer Kanye Clary. Clary went out with an injury, which put the ball in Baldwin’s hands and more responsibility on his shoulders. Two losses would sink Rhoades’ team to the bottom of the conference, and considering the injuries in his first season, nobody would’ve blamed him.
Instead of packing it in for the year, Rhoades leaned into the identity he molded at VCU for the previous six seasons. Penn State had been playing at a pace of about 73 possessions per game for the year, much quicker than Rhoades’ VCU teams played, and the Nittany Lions lacked the defensive identity that tormented the Atlantic 10 for years.
Against Rutgers, Penn State slowed the pace to 69 possessions and led by Baldwin’s game-high 15 points, seven assists, and five rebounds, beat the Scarlet Knights 61-46. It was a crucial win, but not unexpected against the last-place team in the league.
The real test came on Saturday in Bloomington against the 13-8 Indiana Hoosiers. Penn State, without Clary or any frontcourt depth, went into halftime down 41-37, but behind 13 second-half points from Baldwin, who played all 40 minutes, escaped with an 85-71 comeback victory.
The Nittany Lions again leaned into a slower pace, with just 62 possessions, but were hyper-efficient on offense in them. Instead of the defense taking over, Baldwin was a maestro on the offensive end, bailing the team out of sloppy possessions with the type of shot-making that's been lacking all season, and setting up teammates for one of the team's best shooting performances of the season.
Penn State still sits in 11th at 5-6 in conference play but is now just a game behind fourth-place Nebraska. There are still nine conference contests remaining, but after these back-to-back wins, there’s a reason to watch and a reason to believe that Penn State could find itself in the mix when the Big Ten tournament rolls around.
In just 22 games as Penn State’s head coach, Rhoades has already displayed an innate ability to adapt to his circumstances, and that malleability is indispensable as a Power Five head coach at a football school that won’t always be able to attract comparable talent to the rest of the conference.
For example, Penn State allowed 26 points in the paint in the first half against Indiana, and center Kel’el Ware led the Hoosiers with 17 points. Qudus Wahab is Penn State’s only true big man, but Rhoades figured out how to slow down Indiana’s oversized frontcourt of Ware, Malik Reneau, and Mackenzie Mgbako, and exploit his team’s speed on the offensive end to the tune of 48 second-half points.
Penn State forced 13 turnovers to offset the Hoosiers’ six-rebound advantage, and a 12/22 night from behind the three-point line didn’t hurt either. Zach Hicks, who is shooting 30.6% from deep on the year, went 4/8 against the Hoosiers, who were ill-prepared to deal with Penn State’s spacing in its undersized frontcourt.
Still, Baldwin was the story, finishing with 22 points, eight assists, and two steals. He went eight for 14 from the field, and since Penn State’s win over Wisconsin on January 16, he’s shooting 52.6% from the field, compared to 39.5% for the season.
This version of the former A10 Player of the Year can carry Penn State to a first, and maybe second-round bye in the Big Ten tournament. If Rhoades is going to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time as a head coach, it’ll be because of Baldwin, who has taken him there twice before.
At some point, Kanye Clary will need to be reintegrated, but this week from Penn State has taught us two things. First, Clary needs to take a backseat to Baldwin, and second, Penn State hired the right coach as Micah Shrewsberry’s replacement.
The season was on the line and Penn State responded with one shutdown defensive outing and a lights-out offensive one. Not every team knows how to win in multiple ways, but after three years at the top of the A10, Rhoades, and Baldwin do.