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Smeltzer: Penn State Basketball has Multiple Ways to Win

Photo by Penn State Athletics: Mike Rhoades

As of Wednesday morning, things were looking bleak for first-year coach Mike Rhoades and Penn State. 

The team was four days removed from a brutal loss to Minnesota before a Saturday night home crowd at the Bryce Jordan Center in which it blew a 16-point second-half lead. 

PSU lost that game and lost its leading scorer, Kanye Clary, who is averaging more than 18 PPG, to injury. Even with Clary, the team hadn’t been good away from the Bryce Jordan Center. To be blunt, it had been awful, losing each of its first eight games.

So Penn State’s task Wednesday night was to play Rutgers in the 8,000-seat, 46-year-old “RAC” without arguably its best player. Not an ideal setup for Rhoades’ first road win at Penn State. 

For many, a Claryless Penn State had an alibi to lose to Rutgers. 

Rhoades wasn’t one of those people. 

“Make no excuses, number one,” Rhoades said in his post-Rutgers presser. “There’s no excuses. It’s a 40-minute game. Find a way to win. You have to step up for your teammates because we’re already down one guy… there’s no secret formula. People might say there’s a special potion. You have to get guys to step up and show up. These guys have to play basketball.”

Penn State “played basketball” well enough to win by 15.  

“Not bad,” most thought. 

But surely, that hot streak wouldn’t continue three days later at Indiana. 

After all, Penn State beat a bad Rutgers team (10-10, 2-7 Big Ten), and although this year’s IU squad isn’t going to remind anybody of Bob Knight and Isiah Thomas— the Hoosiers came in with a 13-8 overall record and 5-5 conference mark— it is still a team that could play itself into the tournament discussion by getting hot. 

Those chances took a big hit thanks to Penn State.

There have been some common themes in Penn State’s two road wins. Ace Baldwin has been fantastic in both. Each had similar margins of victory (15 points, 14 points) and both featured Penn State being significantly better in the second half than it was in the first (Penn State outscored IU 48-30 in the last 20 minutes).

But look at the final scores of each game:

Penn State 61, Rutgers 46

Penn State 85, Indiana 71.

The Rutgers game was a classic Big Ten grinder.

The Indiana game was, at times, a shootout.

In both games, Penn State embraced the style of play and won by double digits. 

As impressive as the Rutgers win was on the defensive end, the offense left a lot to be desired. Only two players– Baldwin and D’Marco Dunn, who’s been starting in Clary’s place– cracked double figures. 

That wasn’t the case in Bloomington. It became apparent early on that if Penn State was going to win, it was going to have to win a track meet. With a little more than eight and a half minutes to play in the first half, Penn State trailed 26-16, and Indiana was already halfway toward surpassing Rutgers’ 40-minute point total from days before. Penn State didn’t seem to have an answer for Indiana’s 7-footer, Kel’el Ware, who ended the first half with 17 points and seven rebounds. For a brief moment, it looked like Indiana might roll over Penn State similar to the way Michigan State and Purdue did earlier this season. 

But Penn State stayed in the game for the rest of the first half and did so by doing something it didn’t do well in Piscataway: Shooting. 

Penn State ended the first half down by four but scored a solid 37 points. 

Almost half of those came via the 3-ball. 

At Rutgers, PSU shot 5-for-23 from beyond the arc. The team made eclipsed that total in just the first, half, and that was a big reason it was down by four going into the second half. 

Coming out of halftime, it was anybody’s game, but it didn’t stay that way for too long. Penn State’s shooting got even better. The team ended the second half 6-for-10 from 3 and shot 64 percent from the field, both improvements from the first half. What Rhoades might be most proud of, given his background and success as a defensive-minded coach, is how Penn State’s defense responded in the second half. Penn State held Indiana to 30 points, and some of those came after the outcome was sealed. In the first half, Indiana shot 57 percent from the field. In the second half, it shot just 37 percent. 

Is PSU an NCAA Tournament team? No. Even if this hot run continues, it’s hard to picture a team with 11 losses in early February making it to the dance without winning its conference tournament, especially when one of those losses is to Bucknell. 

But Mike Rhoades is the right man for the job, and he proved that this week by leading his team to wins in two different types of games.

PSU basketball is competitive and worth watching, and for this program, that’s not a bad place to be. 

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