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VCU, Penn State to clash in highly-anticipated matchup

It has been 242 days since Penn State University announced Mike Rhoades as the new head coach of the Nittany Lions basketball team.

In that time, the VCU Rams program that Rhoades departed has faced numerous changes, including the hiring of Utah State head coach Ryan Odom and the departure of many of the prominent players of last season’s Atlantic 10 tournament champion squad. Notably, A-10 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Ace Baldwin departed for Penn State, along with Nick Kern.

Now, the stage is set in perhaps the most anticipated 7th-place game of any multi-team event tournament during “Feast Week,” as Rhoades, Baldwin and Kern face off against Odom’s Rams at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday in their final game of the ESPN Events Invitational.

Feast Week struggles

The VCU Rams (3-3) enter the contest on a two-game slide during the ESPN Events Invitational, dropping games to Iowa State and Boise State on Thursday and Friday, respectively.

Each loss was by four points but occurred under vastly differing circumstances.

The loss to Iowa State came after VCU led for over 35 minutes during the contest. A rally by the Cyclones late, along with a nearly five-minute dry spell to close the game for the Rams that saw VCU fail to make a shot, allowed Iowa State to close on a 19-5 run.

VCU’s offense clicked during the contest, connecting on 10 3-pointers and shooting 45.5% from the floor during the game. Four Rams scored in double figures, led by Max Shulga’s 17.

Joining Shulga in double figures were Michael Belle, Christian Fermin and Zeb Jackson, with 14, 12 and 10 points, respectively. Jackson also led the team in rebounding with five.

Ultimately, Iowa State’s dual attack from Tamin Lipsey and Keshon Gilbert was too much to overcome. The pair each scored 22 points, with Gilbert tacking on 10 rebounds of his own.

VCU again led at the half on Friday against Boise State before the Broncos found a gear in the second half, leading by as many as seven. The Broncos also scored 15 points off turnovers and shot 17-of-21 from the free throw line, ultimately leading to a Boise State victory.

The Rams were powered by a career day from sophomore Tobi Lawal, who scored a career-high 14 points. Shulga again led the Rams with 24 points, while grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out three assists. Lawal secured eight rebounds of his own, while Jackson scored eight points and secured six rebounds in the loss.

Home-and-home… and neutral?

VCU includes a stipulation in the contracts of its head coaches securing a home-and-home series with their next school if the coach chooses to leave while under contract.

The arrangement has led to various memorable moments for VCU, including a road win over Shaka Smart’s Texas squad in 2018 and a home win against Will Wade and a nationally ranked LSU team one year later.

The home-and-home series between Rhoades’ Nittany Lions and VCU is slated to begin in 2024-25, according to CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein. It is unclear whether Penn State or VCU will get the first home game, although VCU has gotten the first game in the last two such arrangements. (It is worth noting that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, VCU never got a road game against Wade’s LSU team. Wade eventually left LSU and is not the head coach at McNeese State).

An interesting wrinkle about Rhoades’ departure is this year’s ESPN Events Invitational, which was on both university’s schedules before the coaching change was made. Due to the way the bracket was set up, the only way the two schools would get a neutral site game – and a third bite at the Rhoades-vs-VCU apple – is if VCU and Penn State went 0-2 or 2-0 in the MTE.

Three days later, here we are.

Meet your opponent: Penn State

VCU fans are well familiar with some of the key names for the Penn State Nittany Lions (4-2) in Sunday morning’s matchup.

Most notably, reigning A-10 Player of the Year Ace Baldwin is leading the Nittany Lions in assists with three per game, while adding 13 total steals to his stat sheet. His 11.8 points per game ranks second on the team through the first six games.

Baldwin notably came off the bench in a Nov. 10 win against Lehigh – the first time in his college career that Baldwin came off the bench. Rhoades declined to elaborate why Baldwin came off the bench beyond a “coach’s decision,” and Baldwin subsequently returned to the starting lineup.

Nick Kern, who also followed Rhoades to Penn State, has started all six games for the Nittany Lions so far this season. Kern is shooting 50% from the floor so far this season and is second on the team in rebounding with 4.3 boards per game. The junior guard scored a season-high 12 points in Penn State’s Friday loss to Butler.

Leading the Nittany Lions in scoring is sophomore Kanye Clary. A native of Virginia Beach, Virginia and a holdover from last year’s team, Clary is averaging just under 20 points per game so far this season. In the Friday loss to Butler, Clary scored a career-high 28 points to go with five rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Leading Penn State in rebounding is graduate transfer Qudus Wahab, who is averaging double-digit boards so far this season. Through six games, he sits less than a point-per-game from a double-double average and has started every game this season.

VCU leaders

Through VCU’s first six games, Max Shulga has emerged as the leading scorer. The senior guard from Ukraine – who joined VCU from Utah State along with head coach Ryan Odom – is averaging 15.8 points per night.

Senior guard Zeb Jackson is the only other Ram averaging double figures, scoring 13.7 points per game to open the season. Jackson and Shulga are also VCU’s top assist men, with 23 and 28 dimes respectively.

After having a limited role on last year’s VCU team, sophomores Christian Fermin and Tobi Lawal are experiencing rejuvenation in increased playing time. Lawal, who comes off the bench for VCU, is third on the team in scoring with nine points per game and is the team’s leading rebounder.

Fermin, meanwhile, secured his first career double-double earlier this season and averages just under six rebounds per game.

One of VCU’s most explosive scorers has proven to be Richmond native – and former Richmond Spider – Jason Nelson. Nelson is fourth on the team in scoring to open the season and has proven to both score in bunches and serve as an igniter for VCU runs in early season battles, notably a 19-point outing against Radford.

A look back at Rhoades’ tenure

Mike Rhoades spent six seasons at the helm of the VCU Rams – a job that he said was a destination job during his introductory press conference in 2017.

Results under Rhoades were generally positive, with VCU earning three NCAA Tournament bids during his tenure. Rhoades did not win an NCAA Tournament game at VCU, taking losses to UCF in 2019 and Saint Mary’s in 2023 while being forced to forfeit in 2021 due to COVID-19 issues within the VCU program.

Rhoades left VCU with a 129-61 record to pair with two A-10 regular season titles (2019, 2023) and the 2023 A-10 Tournament Championship. The Lebanon Valley College alum also won games against both of his immediate predecessors, including Smart, whom he worked under during VCU’s run to the Final Four in 2011.

While at VCU, Rhoades was a popular figure whom fans could relate to. His passion for the job, which he referred to as a “dream job,” was palpable, and he appealed as an everyman figure who referred to the broader VCU community as family.

Ultimately though, Rhoades met the same fate as Smart and Wade, and left VCU for a job at a “Power 5” school. Rhoades, a Pennsylvania native, took the opportunity to return to his home state after spending the vast majority of his career in Central Virginia, either at VCU or Randolph-Macon College.

Rhoades’ departure and the subsequent hire of Odom marked a sea change for the Rams. Odom is the first coach hired outside of Smart’s coaching tree in more than a decade, while the hiring of an offensive-minded coach saw a stark departure from the “Havoc” brand of defense that VCU made famous over the last decade-plus.

In fact, Penn State attempted to lay claim to the havoc moniker earlier this week on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

VCU and Penn State will tip off from the State Farm Field House at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Walt Disney World in Florida at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

Penn State holds a 1-0 advantage in the all-time series, courtesy of a 72-69 win in Happy Valley in 2020. Myles Dread drained a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Nittany Lions the win. The only player on either team’s current roster to appear in that game was Baldwin, who scored seven points and provided six assists in the loss for VCU.