Let me start with a neat statistic. For the past five seasons (as far back as I could verify without breaking my fingers searching), Penn State has been picked to finish no higher than 12th in the conference in the preseason. In that same time span, they’ve finished no lower than 10th (11th if you count tiebreakers). That’s not the greatest accomplishment in the world, but for a program that has known nothing but futility for most of its history, consistently outperforming expectations, even if slightly, is notable.
That’s why, when Micah Shrewsberry took over the Nittany Lion program, everyone simply assumed it would be a tough climb to the top. The Nittany Lions aren’t exactly known for their basketball prowess, usually playing third, sometimes even fourth fiddle to the other sports —namely wrestling and hockey. The sudden departure of Pat Chambers at the beginning of the 2021-22 season left the team in limbo, and, after a season of uncertainty, a gutted roster, and an interim coach who was not really interested in recruiting for a team he wasn’t going to lead, expecting Shrewsberry to do anything other than struggle was beyond even the most delusional of fans’ wildest dreams.
A scrappy bunch under Pat Chambers, people knew that Penn State would usually be competitive, but they also knew that “competitive” would be where it ended. To everyone’s surprise, the Lions were a little bit more than “just” competitive under Shrewsberry. The close losses were still there, but they were winning more than anyone expected them to, right out of the gate. Then, a mere year later, they weren’t just competing and winning “more than expected.” They were just winning. In fact, they won enough to nearly win the Big Ten Tournament.
A first round NCAA Tournament win and two NBA draft picks later, and suddenly people were talking about Penn State in a different light. That, of course, would be short lived, as Shrewsberry took the opportunity to go back to the state where he’s coached most of his life. The light at the end of the tunnel every Penn State fan saw turned out to be an oncoming train.
Shrewsberry may ultimately become a hall of fame coach when his career is over (or, if he’s as good as Tom Izzo, while he’s still coaching). But for as good as Shrewsberry is, he left one thing behind: Penn State can win, if the resources are there to build a winning program.
From a roster perspective, Shrewsberry left the place much worse than he found it. He took his entire recruiting class with him, as well as former Nittany Lion Kebba Njie. The other thing he left, though, was the abundantly evident need for a focused NIL effort around basketball. Shrewsberry openly complained, and maybe even hinted, at NIL being a sticking point for him during a December 2022 interview when asked about the topic. It all came to a boil when the news cycle began to pin him to the Notre Dame job. But, ultimately, every fan knew the Indiana pull would have been too much no matter what.
In comes Mike Rhoades, suddenly with a budget no other Penn State basketball coach has ever had. Everything that was offered to Shrewsberry as he walked out the door was now at Rhoades’s disposal. An increased assistant budget. A focused NIL effort. Ongoing facilities improvements. And so far, there are dividends being paid. Two North Carolina transfers, two more coveted guards who had their fair share of suitors, and suddenly, Penn State went from three returning scholarship players to a full complement of scholarships in a span of three months. This was not a luxury afforded to Shrewsberry merely two years ago, and we don’t even need to recount the times Chambers celebrated finally getting training tables to underscore the point. Penn State, seeing their best coach in a generation, if not ever, walk out due to lack of support, decided to up the ante.
I will be the first to tell you that I don’t know how things will turn out with Rhoades. I don’t know that he’ll be a better coach than Shrewsberry when it’s all said and done. But, he has something no other Penn State coach has had: An athletic department that finally recognizes basketball can win, and has dedicated resources to see it happen. And, if anything, starting out with a full complement of players previous coaches could have only dreamed of attracting in their first year as coaches is already a success in and of itself.
Now go out and win.