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Smeltzer: Mike Rhoades Already Bringing Good Feelings Back to Penn State Basketball

Joe Crispin and Titus Ivory during the magical run to the Sweet 16 in 2001.

This has to be the wildest month in Penn State basketball history.

I’m only 25, not 127. So, I haven’t been alive for the program’s entire run.

But I can’t imagine there’s ever been a month as wild as March 2023.

It’s had plenty of highs. The team made its first NCAA Tournament and Big Ten Championship game appearances since 2011 and won its first NCAA Tournament game since 2001, when Joe Crispin led the team.

It’s had plenty of lows. The architect of the milestones mentioned above, Micah Shrewsberry , accepted the Notre Dame job March 22, six days after Penn State’s first-round win over Texas A&M.

It took six days for Penn State fans to go from being psyched about the basketball program to dreading its future.

Four of Penn State’s players from this past season have entered the transfer portal.

Two of Penn State’s three ‘23 signees have requested releases from their NLI.

With less than three days left in the month, Penn State officially announced the hiring of Shrewsberry’s successor. There are still two days left in March, and who knows what can happen.

But it sure looks like this month will end on a high note for Penn State. This is because of Rhoades, and the Penn State legend he hired as an assistant coach.

Sure, a new coach often brings optimism, but Rhoades is probably as good a coach as Penn State could have realistically picked. He made his head coaching debut at 25. He’s won everywhere he’s been.

He won at the DIII level. He was the boss at Randolph-Macon for a decade and led the team to four NCAA Tournaments and two Sweet 16s.

He’s won at the DI level. His first role here was as an assistant with VCU (2009-14). Over that time, he helped Shaka Smart guide the team to four NCAA Tournaments in five seasons and a Final Four trip in 2011.

From there, he became a DI head coach. He didn’t win a lot at first. He came to Rice after the Owls had gone 12-49 over the previous two seasons. After a pair of 12-20 records, Rhoades and Rice made big strides in Year 3, going 23-12 and making the CBI quarterfinal.

Rhoades then returned to his first DI coaching stop, this time as VCU’s head coach. He took the team to the NCAA Tournament in his second season. He twice returned to the “Big Dance,” the most recent being this past season, when he led VCU to the A10 regular-season and tournament championships, finishing 27-8.

So overall, Rhoades has made the NCAA Tournament in eight of his 13 seasons and made the postseason in 11 of 13.

Not too shabby.

When Penn State hired Rhoades, it already brought back some of the good vibes that Shrewsberry took with him on the way out.

Hours after the news became official, Rhoades hit his first home run as Penn State’s head coach.

Joe Crispin is Penn State royalty. The school doesn’t have a ton of basketball legends, but he’s one of them. He was the best player on one of Penn State’s most beloved teams. I’m talking about the 2001 squad that made the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed. He finished his career 14 points shy of 2,000. That’s still good enough for fourth in school history. All the while, Crispin had a charisma that made him a fan-favorite personality-wise, too.

After Penn State, Crispin played in the NBA for a year with the Suns and Lakers. From there, he stayed in professional basketball, joining about a million teams before ending his career in 2012.

Crispin’s college coaching career began in 2014 with Division III Rowan. He assisted there for two seasons. After that, he became the boss ahead of the 2016-17 campaign.

Yes, it was “only DIIIl”, but Crispin killed it at his first head coaching stop, going 114-54 over seven seasons and making three NCAA Tournament appearances. This past campaign, Rowan finished 24-6 and made it to the Sweet 16.

Going back to when Shrewsberry’s departure to Penn State was still just speculation, fans were already talking about Crispin as a potential replacement. Of course, a lot of that talk was based on sentimentality. The idea of a Division III head coach jumping straight to Division I without any buffer seems drastic, especially when that DI program is in the Big Ten.

Crispin might not be ready to lead a Big Ten program yet, but there’s no reason to think he can’t be a quality assistant, and a perfect fit for Penn State.

Along with his obvious ties to the University, Crispin is a fantastic offensive mind. Here are Rowan’s points per game numbers from each of Crispin’s seven seasons at Rowan:

2016-17: 87.5

2017-18: 82

2018-19: 85.3

2019-20: 84.5

2021-22: 84.5

2022-23: 91.4

Penn State averaged 72.2 points per game this past season.

Yes, Penn State plays in the Big Ten, not DIII, but there’s no reason to believe Crispin is an offensive mind.

Crispin’s younger brother, Jon, who played with Joe at Penn State for two seasons, told Nittany Sports Now in a text message Wednesday night that Crispin was a “big add from a scoring and style standpoint.”

“They want to be different,” Jon Crispin said. “Brother Joe will certainly be a big part of that.”

Some would take those words with a grain of salt since they’re from Joe Crispin’s brother, but since Jon Crispin is a national analyst for ESPN and Westwood One, I would say he knows his basketball and knows what good coaching is.

My friend Mark Brennan of Lions247 with Fight on State has been covering PSU sports for almost 35 years and covered Crispin in his playing days.

Brennan, along with the Athletic’s Matt Fortuna, broke the story of Rhoades hiring Joe Crispin. In a tweet not long after the story broke, Brennan called Crispin “one of the— if not the— smartest basketball people I’ve ever met.”

Mark’s met a lot of people with great basketball minds, so that’s some high praise.

In hiring Crispin, Rhaodes, a Pennsylvania native who played at Lebanon Valley, showed that he understands what Penn State’s fans want, and most important, showed he knows how to pick a staff.

I don’t know what Rhodes, Crispin or any other Penn State basketball coach will do over the next however many years, and I understand that there’s a good chance Rhoades’s first Penn State team isn’t very good based on the players who have  already left and who could follow them out the door.

Maybe Rhoades doesn’t win at Penn State. Who knows what could happen?

But I do know that this fanbase feels good about where the program is headed, and that’s a far cry from where things were after Shrewsberry’s departure.

Barring something unfortunate and unforeseen, Penn State basketball fans should end this wild month feeling good about what’s to come.

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