Hoops Column: In the face of adversity, PSU's seniors carved out a legacy
By Jim Ferry's own admission, John Harrar's career was never supposed to work out this way.
He entered the Penn State program that he's now the face of as a football player, and with a football player's body — far from the complete package.
"I'm going to be a little honest — no, I didn't think he would be able to be this good," Ferry said Tuesday.
"Once you really got to know John and see him every single day in practice, nothing surprised me in the end just because of who he is as a human being, his work ethic, his drive and his unselfish approach to do whatever it takes to become a leader in this program and help the program win."
Jamari Wheeler's evolution was similar. He wasn't a headline-grabbing recruit. He had one other power conference offer, tabbed as a defensive specialist with not much offensive instinct. Now, he's Penn State's floor general. He leads the Big Ten in steals, and to the surprise of many, he's added an efficient three-point shot to his arsenal.
It's a celebration that might seem a bit clouded by the obstacles of this season, by the uncertainty about the future of the program, and by the brutality of the near misses this team has suffered all year.
It's also a bit awkward, because in reality the future of these five seniors is still up in the air. Each one could hypothetically return for the fifth season of eligibility granted to them by the NCAA as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Harrar said he isn't sure what his future holds, and Wheeler said the same.
"We’ve talked all year about staying present, and that’s what these guys have done," Ferry said. "We’ll talk about that once the season’s over. We’re going to be here for these guys no matter what the situation is. And once the season’s over, we’ll take a deep breath, and we’ll see what these guys want to do and figure out what’s best for them. If they want to use that fifth year then obviously we’re going to really support them and have them do it.”
But fans shouldn't allow those variables to make this group feel any less special. If anything, the actions of Harrar and Wheeler in the face of the well-documented adversity Penn State has faced this season should elevate their legacies.
It would have been so easy for this group to quit when Patrick Chambers resigned just before the season began. It would have been easy for them to fold when they started 0-5 in Big Ten play. It would have been easy to just start going through the motions after a COVID-19 outbreak forced them off the court for more than two weeks.
None of that has happened. These Nittany Lions might not have what it takes to match up with Big Ten opposition on a nightly basis, but they certainly play hard — and they've played hard under circumstances that would make a lesser group fold.
When Penn State lost at home to Ohio State after playing the Buckeyes close for the vast majority of the game and losing steam late, Harrar was asked what he's playing for with the NCAA Tournament seemingly out of the picture.
He answered with a story about how he'd arrived for his pre-game workout that night and shed a tear, overcome with emotion generated by his connection with the university.
"I love this place," he said that night. "I love the Bryce Jordan Center. I love this university. That's what I play for. I play for the people in the locker room, the staff. I love this place. I love everything that comes with it. I loved my four years here. That's why I play this game, all the love I have for my teammates and this place."
What Penn State has given them, Harrar and Wheeler have certainly given back, keeping this group of Nittany Lions together when nobody could have blamed them for breaking off, for losing faith, for quitting.
The questions now are similar to the ones that we began the season with. Who will be this team's head coach next season? How many of these players will be on the roster? How long will it take the program to build itself back up to where it was last season, a lock for the NCAA Tournament?
There will be plenty of time to ask those questions later. Wednesday night, devote your focus to John Harrar, Jamari Wheeler and Penn State's senior class, because this is their moment, and they deserve every second if it.
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