Blue White Illustrated

December 2023

Penn State Sports Magazine

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Page 37 of 67

L earning and executing offense hasn't been a challenge for junior Zach Hicks. Like many of his new team- mates at Penn State this season, that side of the floor elicits a sense of comfort and his best work. Arriving from Temple this offseason, an easy transfer portal target thanks to his offensive resume over two seasons, the 6-foot-8, 200-pound wing has estab- lished his proficiency there. He knocked down 141 three-pointers in his freshman and sophomore seasons, hitting at a rate of 36.3 percent and posting double-figure scoring totals on 28 occasions. The Nittany Lions' new defense has been a different story. Grinding through the adjustment of playing under new Penn State head coach Mike Rhoades, Hicks acknowledged what has come most naturally. And, conversely, he also pointed to the area on the hard- wood that has created the most difficult learning curve to master. "Everybody loves to play offense," Hicks said. "Everybody has the right mentality when we're on offense. I don't think that was too much of a challenge." Finding a defensive mentality that matches the intensity the Nittany Li- ons are determined to establish in Year 1, however, has been another story. Hicks said the concepts weren't at issue. Rather, called upon to execute a standard that is physically grueling, he and many of his teammates needed time to adjust. "We're all basketball players, we all un- derstand things, but it definitely was a challenge in the beginning. I would say more so the conditioning part, because Coach likes to get up and down a lot," Hicks said. "I was coming from a program — I'm pretty sure other people were also coming from programs — that liked to walk the ball up, play slow, and take their time. That was the major difference." Winning Formula In Rhoades' first season in Happy Val- ley, the difference is purposeful. Collecting 10 new players this offsea- son, Rhoades has assembled a well-bal- anced and diverse roster. It's led by senior Ace Baldwin Jr., the reigning Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, at point guard. Alongside Bald- win is junior guard Nick Kern Jr., a former VCU teammate who is defensively sound. In the transfer additions of Hicks, se- nior forward Puff Johnson and graduate forward Leo O'Boyle, the Nittany Li- ons have a trio of proficient three-point shooters with size. All standing 6-foot-7 or taller, they have the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc and space the floor for a set of penetrating guards that also includes sophomore Kanye Clary, junior D'Marco Dunn and graduate RayQuawndis Mitchell. That formula for winning offense is built on a foundation of strong defense and speed in transition. A philosophical break from anything the Nittany Lions did under since-departed coach Micah Shrewsberry last season, the style and ex- ecution are set to look dramatically differ- ent on both ends of the floor. "Transition threes are easier shots for many guys," Rhoades said. "If you run hard and you play with pace, you'll have more opportunities for those transition threes. I think that's to our advantage. We have to play much faster than Penn State played last year or that we played at VCU last year. "That is a huge topic for us every day. How can we continue to play fast, be ag- gressive and put constant pressure on the defense? We don't want to always just be playing in a quarter-court offense against a team that's going to be bigger and more physical than us." An Attacking Style For Hicks and the rest of the Nittany Lions, that required a crash course in not just the concepts of sound defensive bas- ketball, but also their execution. And it took on its most challenging form with the full-court press. An attacking style demanding seamless coordination among the five players on the floor, the system has not been easy to implement. "Nobody was really used to it," Hicks said. "None of us really came from schools that were picking up 94 feet and doing things like that. I think that was the major challenge." To better acclimate himself, Hicks said a variety of avenues toward improvement were at his disposal this offseason. His weight room approach changed, he said. So too did his focus on diet and nutrition. Hicks' preoccupation with Penn State's defensive philosophy didn't diminish his contributions on the offensive end of the floor. He's been eager for the chance to expand his game, adding elements to his repertoire like scoring off the dribble, at- tacking a close-out, and playing with the freewheeling offensive flow Rhoades has been known to implement throughout his career. W W W . B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M 3 8 D E C E M B E R 2 0 2 3 Quick Change Penn State's new up-tempo style has required some adjustment, but it has resonated with newcomer Zach Hicks NAT E BAU E R | N AT E . B A U E R @ O N 3 . C O M MEN'S BASKETBALL

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