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Smeltzer: Penn State Basketball Misses John Harrar

Penn State Basketball Player John Harrar
Photo from Penn State Twitter (USA Today): John Harrar

I wonder if Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry thought about John Harrar or after the team’s loss to Rutgers Tuesday night?

As I watched Rutgers’ Clifford Omoruyi (6-foot-11, 240 pounds) put up 16 points and 10 rebounds, I thought of Harrar, and I know I wasn’t alone.

I thought specially about something I witnessed that’s related to Harrar, pbut didn’t happened during a game or even in Harrar’s presence.

After Harrar’s second-to-last home game at Penn State, Shrewsberry told reporters gathered in the Bryce Jordan Center media room about a big idea.

Penn State beat Northwestern at the BJC Friday, and played Nebraska Sunday in Harrar’s last game in Happy Valley.

In between, Shrewsberry said he wanted to get started on a project.

Harrar’s college eligibility expired this past March after five seasons. There was no way he could come back and start for Penn State in November.

But his coach wasn’t giving up.

“I have a petition on Saturday I’m going to work on,” he said. “I need all you guys to sign it. I need everyone that comes into the BJC on Sunday; we’re going to get that started. If (the NCAA doesn’t) accept it, John’s not going to be here next year.”

Shrewsberry’s plan didn’t work, and the coach made that comment in jest.

But it felt like he was only half joking.

After last season, Harrar left the program, tried out for the Philadelphia Eagles, didn’t make the team and started his professional basketball career in the Spain.

Penn State men’s basketball misses John Harrar, and it’s hard to believe anybody misses him more than the coach. Shrewsberry loved Harrar, and although the pair only got to bond as player and coach for a year, the bond was significant.

If Harrar wasn’t Shrewsberry’s favorite Penn State basketball last season, he did a fantastic job acting like it.

“What I hear Penn State is, I see it every day, and I see it in John,” Shrewsberry said after the Nittany Lions’ loss to Ohio State Dec. 5, 2021.

“John’s a warrior, man,” Shrewsberry said after Penn State’s upset win over Michigan State Feb. 15, 2022. “He’s a warrior. He gives you everything he has. There is no, ‘did John play hard tonight?’ Yes, John plays hard.”

Penn State could have used Harrar’s intensity Tuesday night in Piscataway.

“At some point in time, you gotta stand up,” Shrewsberry said in his postgame press conference. “At some point in time, you have to have some pride, and right now, we don’t have any pride. I told them that. What I’m saying to you, I told them exactly this in the locker room. We need some prideful defenders. That’s on me.”

Shrewsberry’s squad might not have beaten Rutgers Tuesday night with Harrar in the fold.

Any time a team loses by 20, it’s hard to say one player would have changed the outcome, unless that player is somebody like Lew Alcindor circa 1969.

But how much better would Penn State men’s basketball be if Harrar had been granted that sixth year of eligibility?

Penn State’s biggest weakness is that it doesn’t have a consistently reliable post presence.

Freshman Kebba Njie is one of the highest-rated signees in Penn State history. But he’s still just a freshman, averaging 3.7 points and 3.4 rebounds  per game and looking shaky defensively at times.

Njie is going through plenty of growing pains, yet is Penn State’s No. 1 big man. Last season, Harrar averaged a double-double as a savvy vet.

If Harrar were still here, might some of Penn State’s seven losses be wins? Could Penn State have beaten Wisconsin in Madison for the first time since the days of Leonardo Di Vinci instead of losing by three? Would the team be compelled to shoot a million three pointers a night?

To be clear, Harrar isn’t a 2020s Hakeem Olajuwon. He isn’t playing in the NBA and is currently averaging less than eight points per game in the Spanish Basketball Federation.

But Harrar was perfect for the program. He came to Penn State as a two-star football recruit who committed to Army before switching his focus to basketball and coming to Penn State. In Happy Valley, Harrar captured the hearts of Penn State fans in a way not many hoopers have.

It’s not easy for a basketball player to become beloved at a school where football is King, wrestling is second in command and about 72 other sports have been more successful than men’s basketball. But Harrar became beloved, and nobody loved Penn State basketball more than No. 21.

Oh, how would have loved to be part of this year’s team. Yes, the team is flawed, and that was more evident in Piscataway than at any other point in the season thus far.

But Penn State has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, and that’s not something that happens often in Happy Valley. It wasn’t something that was a thing in late January last year, when Shrewsberry was in the midst of his first season as Penn State’s boss. Despite a chaotic offseason that involved some players leaving the program and others— like Harrar— entering the transfer portal before staying in school, it won 14 games, including two in the Big Ten Tournament.

Penn State eventually lost to Purdue in the tournament quarterfinal, ending the season and Harrar’s college career. After the game, Harrar had some encouraging parting words, predicting Penn State would one day win the Big Ten under Shrewsberry.

“I’ll be right behind the bench cheering for him,” Harrar said. “That will be one of the happiest moments of my life, seeing Penn State win a Big Ten championship. I’m Penn State forever.”

That day might ended come. But it felt like a long way away as Rutgers dominated.

Make no mistake, the program is in a better place than it was at this time a year ago, and Harrar’s influence on his teammates is part of the reason for that. But Penn State fans sure wish Shrewsberry’s petition worked and Harrar’s college basketball hourglass had just a little more sand.

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