5 things to know about Mike Rhoades, Penn State’s next men’s basketball coach

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A new era of Penn State basketball is about to begin.

Following final approval from university trustees on Wednesday, Penn State has hired Mike Rhoades as its next men’s basketball head coach, the program said in a press release. Penn State will formally introduce Rhoades with a press conference at 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 30.

Now, the former Virginia Commonwealth University coach and Pennsylvania native is slated to head to Happy Valley with a wealth of experience under his belt as the Nittany Lions attempt to become mainstays in the NCAA Tournament. He will succeed Micah Shrewsberry, who left the program after two years to fill Notre Dame’s vacancy.

With the Rhoades era now underway, here are five things to know about Penn State’s next coach.

1. NCAA Tournament experience

Penn State’s brief but significant trip to the 2023 NCAA Tournament renewed a sense of urgency for the program to qualify for the annual postseason bracket. Rhoades’ impressive resume should help ease those concerns.

As VCU’s head coach, Rhoades guided the Rams to three NCAA Tournament berths in his six-season run in Richmond, though the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled entirely due to the coronavirus pandemic. He also brought the program to a National Invitation Tournament (NIT) berth in 2022.

When Rhoades’ teams did qualify for the NCAA Tournament, they failed to advance past the opening round, most recently falling as a No. 12 seed to No. 5 Saint Mary’s, 63-51, March 17. VCU could not participate in its first-round game against Oregon in the 2021 NCAA Tournament after multiple players tested positive for COVID-19.

Even without a March Madness win, Rhoades is expected to arrive at Penn State with more NCAA Tournament experience than nearly any incoming coach in program history. Shrewsberry, who took the Nittany Lions to the 2023 tournament, coached as an assistant when Butler and Purdue earned berths over the last decade. But over the past 50 years, only Pat Chambers and Ed DeChellis arrived at Penn State with a previous NCAA Tournament berth as a head coach. Chambers and DeChellis guided Boston University and East Tennessee State to the tournament in 2011 and 2003, respectively.

2. Pennsylvania prowess

The Nittany Lions’ new head coach grew up in Mahanoy City in Schuylkill County, just about two hours east of Penn State’s University Park campus. His father, James J. Rhoades, was a seven-term Pennsylvania state senator.

Rhoades played at Lebanon Valley College and helped lead the Flying Dutchmen to the 1994 Division III tournament championship game. A two-time All-American, Rhoades graduated in 1995 and left the program as its all-time scoring leader.

Today, Rhoades still holds Lebanon Valley College’s program records in assists, steals and free-throw percentage. The program has retired his No. 5 jersey.

3. Consistent winning seasons

Rhoades set the tone early in his VCU career by improving from a 17-14 overall record in his first season to a 25-8 record in his sophomore venture. That year, Rhoades guided his team to the Atlantic 10’s regular-season championship and earned himself the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year honor.

He is coming off of arguably his best year with VCU after guiding the Rams to a 27-8 season that included the conference’s regular-season and tournament championships before losing in the NCAA Tournament.

Throughout Rhoades’ 129-61 overall tenure with the program, the Rams never produced a losing overall record, though the team finished 8-10 in Atlantic 10 conference play during the 2019-20 season. Penn State, meanwhile, posted a losing record in six of the last 10 seasons, dating back to a 10-21 campaign during the 2012-13 season.

Before arriving at VCU, Rhoades served as Rice’s head coach between 2014 and 2017 and helped rejuvenate the program over time. The Owls posted identical 12-20 records in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons before Rhoades guided the team to a 23-12 record in the 2016-17 season — the program’s highest single-season win total since the 1953-54 season.

When he was just 25, Rhoades first became a head coach with the Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets, representing the Division III Old Dominion athletic conference. His teams finished with a winning record in all 10 of his seasons with the program, eventually winning four conference titles and a conference tournament championship. Rhoades’ Yellow Jackets punched tickets to the NCAA Division III Tournament four times and advanced as far as the Sweet 16 twice.

4. Recruiting and development

At Penn State, Rhoades will have the opportunity to recruit his own talent to add to the Nittany Lions’ dwindling roster. He’ll certainly need to after four of Penn State’s 2022-23 starters — Jalen Pickett, Andrew Funk, Camren Wynter and Seth Lundy — move on from college basketball due to a lack of remaining eligibility or, in Lundy’s case, NBA aspirations.

Several players already on the roster, including Caleb Dorsey, Dallion Johnson, Evan Mahaffey and Jameel Brown, have entered the transfer portal since the season ended.

Prospective Penn State recruits like Carey Booth and Logan Imes have requested releases from their national letters of intent with the Nittany Lions, and three-star prospect Braeden Shrewsberry is expected to follow his father and play for the Fighting Irish.

Rhoades played an integral role in recruiting when he served as VCU’s associate head coach under Shaka Smart between 2009 and 2014, ultimately helping the Rams advance to a historic Final Four appearance during the 2011 NCAA Tournament. He should have little trouble recruiting talent in Pennsylvania thanks to his extensive ties to the region that date back to his upbringing and college tenure in the Keystone State.

He demonstrated an eye for talent while leading Rice’s program when he recruited Marcus Evans, who went on to become the Conference USA Freshman of the Year with Rice, earn first-team all-conference honors twice and later follow Rhoades to VCU. Rhoades also helped recruit Arizona State transfer Egor Koulechov, who helped spark Rice’s bounce-back season in the coach’s final year with the program.

Acquisitions from the transfer portal will likely be key if Rhoades and the Nittany Lions aim to seriously contend within the Big Ten conference in his first season as head coach.

Additionally, Rhoades helped develop players who went on to become NBA Draft selections in back-to-back years. The Denver Nuggets selected former VCU guard Nah’Shon Hyland No. 26 overall in the 2021 NBA Draft, while the Memphis Grizzlies picked former Rams star Vince Williams Jr. No. 47 overall in the 2022 NBA Draft. Their selections marked the first NBA Draft picks out of VCU in consecutive seasons since 2009 and 2010.

5. Defensive mindset

While three-pointers are seemingly all the rage in college basketball and the NBA these days, Rhoades’ previous coaching stops have shown he places an emphasis on high-flying defensive schemes that limit opposing sharpshooters.

“We stress running good players off of the three-point line,” Rhoades told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2022. “The biggest thing we talk about is activity on the basketball and contesting everything. A late contest is better than no contest. That’s just our mindset. If something is in the way of your target, it’s a difference of missing and making.”

Rhoades’ VCU teams have generally relied on tough and resilient mid-range guard play to balance out their defensive energy. For the 2022-23 season, the Rams ranked among the top 20 programs in the country in forced turnover percentage and adjusted defensive efficiency.

Rhoades’ current defensive-minded philosophy can likely be attributed to his time coaching under Smart at VCU. The former Rams head coach, who now heads Marquette’s program, routinely emphasized full-court pressures, traps and double-teams to disrupt opposing offenses and crank up defensive stress.