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Mike Rhoades & Penn State Hoops Exceed Season Expectations Despite Second-Round Big Ten Tournament Loss

From a sky-high view, it wasn’t hard for Penn State head men’s basketball coach Mike Rhoades to see what he accomplished in his first season with the Nittany Lions.

After 351 days, 16 overall wins, and nine conference wins, Rhoades’ first season wearing Penn State’s white pullover jacket, zipped up to the chin, likely came to an end with a 61-59 loss to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament.

Despite the loss against the No. 6 seeded Hoosiers, Rhoades, who led the No. 11 seed Nittany Lions, wasn’t disappointed. With his season in perspective, Rhoades said his team exceeded expectations and ignored critics from the outside.

“Here we are playing in the second round and expected to win. I think a lot of people didn’t think we’d win any games,” Rhoades said on Thursday night. “I thought these guys, as they went along and we got together [for the] first time [on] June 14, they made themselves into a team that people in the Big Ten didn’t want to play against.”

Rhoades wasn’t wrong about pundits picking against his team. In a CBS poll, three of six experts pinned the Nittany Lions as the worst team in the Big Ten. The other three said Penn State would finish second-to-last.

The Nittany Lions finished 11th in the conference but developed a reputation for outperforming expectations. Upset victories against Wisconsin and Illinois made Penn State a giant killer, even if it struggled against the likes of Michigan State and Purdue.

Rhoades’ mentality of the underrated underdog seemed to permeate throughout the program. After Thursday’s loss, star guard Ace Baldwin Jr. echoed his sentiments.

“It hurts to end the season on a loss,” Baldwin said. “Also, they picked us last for preseason. I think we did pretty well.”

With the conclusion of its 2023-24 campaign, the eyes of Penn State’s program will turn toward what the team can be next season, with Baldwin at the helm — should he choose to stay. Sitting next to forward Puff Johnson, Baldwin hesitated before saying he didn’t know if he would come back to Penn State for his final year of eligibility. Nearing tears, Johnson echoed.

Penn State finished its season needing a handful more wins to reach a postseason tournament. Despite likely missing the NCAA Tournament and the NIT, Rhoades said his team’s performance was set up for further progression of Penn State’s rebuild.

“We had moments throughout the year that all of us got really excited saying, ‘Can we take the next step? Can we take the next step?'” Rhoades said. “You got to go through it all — the highs, the lows, and tough moments like this. If we’re going to build a program the right way to get to the top of this league, today’s got to burn for a long, long time until we put the uniform back on.”

Throughout the entire season, Rhoades seemed to be having fun. He spoke often about how he felt the “young people” he coached were capable of doing incredible things, a sentiment he echoed on Thursday. He talked about the joys of coaching, especially at Penn State. He referenced what he wanted Penn State men’s basketball to become during his time wearing the white pullover.

That’s not to say Rhoades had a drama-free season. He benched Baldwin at the beginning of the season and publically called out the guard who followed him to Penn State from VCU. He removed Penn State’s leading scorer from the team on a “coach’s decision.” He lost to Bucknell in one of the Nittany Lions’ worst defeats in recent history.

But on Thursday, that didn’t seem important to Rhoades. He felt Penn State was set up for success next season on his back and those of the “young people” he coached.

“The best thing about that is outside of our locker room, all the other noise doesn’t matter,” Rhoades said. “My view with a wide lens [is that] there were a lot of things that helped put that foundation of our program now that we can build on. I’m proud of our guys for that. We’ve come a long way.”

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About the Author

Joe Lister

Joe is a junior journalism major at Penn State and an associate editor at Onward State. He covers Penn State football and enjoys yelling on Twitter about Philadelphia/Penn State sports. He also listens to Mac Miller more than you. If you want to find him, Joe's usually watching soccer with his shirt off or at the gym with his shirt on. Please send all positive affirmations and/or hate mail toward him on Twitter (iamjoelister) or via email ([email protected]).

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