The calendar has flipped; it’s now dark at 5:00 p.m., and the PIAA state playoffs for fall sports are nearing its conclusion. But for players, coaches, and spectators, the winter sports season gets underway as this Friday marks the first official practice day for local hoopsters and grapplers.
While the first games of the high school season are a couple of weeks away, area fans of college basketball have gotten a glimpse of the new campaign as both Penn State and Bucknell tipped off their openers last Monday, and Lycoming College followed suit two days later. Although all three are playing at different NCAA levels, ‘newness’ is a theme all will be dealing with as the season gets underway.
Hoping to continue the hoops revival the Nittany Lions experienced last season under former coach Micah Shrewsberry, who bolted for Notre Dame after leading the Blue & White to their first NCAA Tournament since 2001, PSU handed the keys to their basketball fortunes to Mike Rhoades, who posted a successful six-year stint at VCU which included three trips to the NCAA’s Big Dance during his tenure.
Upon his arrival in State College, Rhoades found it just as important to find players as it was a place to live. Shrewsberry’s departure, coupled with the exodus of most of last season’s roster, left the new head man in scramble mode. The Nittany Lions could count only three players remaining (guards Kanye Clary & Jameel Brown and big man Demetrius Lilley) from last year’s team.
Never daunted, Rhoades hit the transfer portal hard, enticing ten players from other schools to pack their gear and head to Happy Valley. When the new season debuted against Delaware State, Clary and Brown stepped up to show the newcomers the way, scoring 22 and 20 points, respectively, in a convincing 79-45 romp.
The Mahoney City native Rhoades’s successful coaching background, including a .664 winning percentage and seven NCAA appearances, made him a logical choice following the Shrewsberry shuffle.
Prior to his six years at VCU, Rhoades produced a stunning turnaround at Rice University from 2014-17, leading the Owls to its first 20-win campaign since 2003-04 and first post-season appearance since 2011-12. While at VCU, he developed a pair of Atlantic 10 Players of the Year and 13 All-Conference selections.
While PSU was dismissing its visitor from the First State, the Delaware University Blue Hens found Bucknell’s Sojka Pavilion a friendly feeding ground, flying past the Bison 78-57 in former Bison standout John Griffin III’s first game as his alma mater’s head coach. While ‘new’ as its coach, Griffin is coming back to a place he experienced much success as a player intent to lay the groundwork for a return to glory on the Bucknell campus.
During his playing days, he was a catalyst on some of Bucknell’s best basketball teams. He was a 1,000-point scorer, an All-Patriot League team selection, and twice helped the Bison to NCAA Tournament appearances. During his time as an assistant coach in 2017-2018, Bucknell returned to the NCAA dance both years.
Returning to Lewisburg from St. Joseph University, where he was associate head coach from 2019-2023, the Bison have fallen on harder times, with their last winning season coming during the 2018-19 campaign and picked to finish ninth in the Patriot League’s pre-season poll.
Griffin hopes things like that provide the Bison with some extra motivation.
“In order to come out victorious, you have to be competitive, and you have to instinctively do things that are aligned with the habits that we are trying to build: rebounding, transition defense, and making the right decisions.”
Prior to his team’s first game, Griffin urged the crowd to start a new tradition, asking them all to stand on their feet until Bucknell scored their first basket. The crowd responded and did just that. Enthusiasm may not put the ball in the basket, but Bison fans are eager to respond to their new coach’s energy.
Compared to Rhoades and Griffin, Lycoming College’s Mark Linebaugh is a seasoned veteran as he begins his second year leading the Warriors’ program. Like the others, he is guiding a team with plenty of new faces and also a bit of the unknown as Lycoming enters its inaugural year of play as a member of the Landmark Conference.
The Warriors logged a 16-10 record in their last season as a MAC member and lost seven seniors from last year’s team, including standouts Mo Terry and Dyson Harwood. This year’s roster includes 11 sophomores and freshmen and will look to senior guard Steve Hamilton (11.8 ppg) to provide leadership early in the season.
Linebaugh came to Lycoming from Dickinson College with 11 years of coaching experience last season. Like Rhoades, he spent time on the coaching staff at Rice University, serving three years as an assistant coach. During his playing career, he was a four-year letterwinner at Colgate and played three years of professional basketball in Denmark.
Linebaugh expects the team’s new home in the Landmark Conference to be filled with competitive competition.
“There’s a lot of talent, a lot of talented coaches. But I’ve been impressed with the leadership the older guys are providing. They’ve shown our young group what it looks like to be a college player. I’ve been thrilled with our progress these last few weeks.”
Newness presents challenges, but it also brings with it hope and opportunity. Rhoades, Griffin, and Linebaugh are selling plenty of that as the new season unfolds.