We’re well past the halfway point in the college basketball season, but it’s about the midway point in conference play with the Big Ten Tournament on the horizon in mid-March. After a win over Big Ten bottom-feeder Rutgers on Wednesday, the Nittany Lions find themselves 11th in the conference at 10-11 (4-6).
Micah Shrewsberry led the team to the Big Ten tournament final and NCAA Tournament last season, his second and final year in Happy Valley. That came after a 14-17 record in Year 1 and Mike Rhoades is on a similar first-season trajectory.
Next year will reveal a lot more about Rhoades as a head coach than 2023 does. However, that doesn’t mean we can judge his and his team’s performance so far. He’s unlikely to guide this group to March Madness, which he did three times across his six years at VCU, but nobody expected him to. That’s not the standard for the basketball team at a football school, especially in a loaded conference.
The Nittany Lions rank 102nd in KenPom and are 114th in the Net Rankings with a 1-4 record in Quad 1 games. That record prominently features a home win over Wisconsin, the Badgers’ only conference loss. Through 21 games, Penn State is 169th in offensive efficiency, down from 24th last season, and 139th in defensive efficiency, a 91-spot improvement.
Even with Rhoades bringing Ace Baldwin Jr. with him from down in Richmond, the Nittany Lions’ roster is severely undermanned. That’s led to a shaky season, but the backcourt made up of Baldwin and a player Rhoades convinced to stay at Penn State, has been the bright spot. That’s where we’ll start with our midseason grades.
Baldwin’s backcourt mate is Kanye Clary and Rhoades desperately needed the 5-foot-11 sophomore to stick around last offseason following Shrewsberry’s departure. While Baldwin, the 2023 A10 Defensive Player of the Year at VCU, is primarily the distributor and point of attack defender, Clary is the scorer, averaging 18.4 points a game, sixth most in the Big Ten.
Clary is the focal point of opposing defenses, but despite his diminutive stature, manages to score efficiently with 47/38/83 shooting splits. Rhoades depends on Clary’s scoring, but with Clary out against Rutgers, D’Marco Dunn stepped into the starting lineup and provided 14 points in the 61-46 win.
Both Baldwin and Clary are capable with the ball in their hands which has made Penn State rather reliable at the end of games, but the only knock of this duo is Baldwin’s shooting struggles. Baldwin is averaging 13.2 points, 5.0 assists, and 2.9 steals, but he’s only shooting 38.4% from the field and 31.9% from three.
Nick Kern Jr. though he’s a 6-foot-6 wing, is the third piece of the starting backcourt, and the junior also came with Rhoades from VCU. After nearly getting phased out of the rotation just before the New Year, Kern is back to playing around 25 minutes a night and making a big impact.
He’s not exactly a 3-and-D wing, only shooting 15.4% from deep, but he’s got the defense part down well and is a nice, compliment to Baldwin and Clary. With better shooting around them, this Penn State backcourt could be one of the best in the Big Ten, but the shooting woes of Baldwin and Kern hold it back from receiving an A or A+.