Micah Shrewsberry, Penn State Hoops Attribute NCAA Tournament Run To John Harrar’s Former Cornerstone Presence
While reaching the NCAA Tournament at the Power Six level comes as a culmination of sustained success across a 31-game regular season with a conference tournament sifted in between, for most untraditional powers, making the Big Dance stems from a grander cultural shift.
On the surface, Penn State men’s basketball’s hiring of Micah Shrewsberry just over two years ago generally appears as the alteration point that brought the program out of the Big Ten’s cellar and into its newly formidable self.
But, in the eyes of the Nittany Lions’ second-year head coach, it wasn’t just his own overarching presence that rapidly delivered Penn State into the postseason’s main event. Instead, former center John Harrar’s culture-commanding presence set to tone from top-to-bottom required to win at the highest level.
“Some of the things [Harrar] did for our program, and how he set our culture last year, came off the court,” Shrewsberry said Friday afternoon. “He wasn’t a big talker, but he spoke up when he needed to. He was a worker that everybody saw how much he worked, and then they kind of took to that themselves.”
After playing an integral role in the Nittany Lions’ NIT Championship run behind eight starts as a true freshman in 2017, Harrar made 32-combined starting appearances over the ensuing pair of campaigns.
Throughout the latter half of the 2019 go-around, Harrar severed as former mentor Pat Chambers’ prototypical glue guy, highlighted by a 77.7% conversion rate from the post during the campaign’s closing eight-contest run. Moreover, the Delaware County product garnered at least six rebounds over the last seven conference matchups.
At that point, Harrar’s progression amounted to an all-time high just three seasons into his tenure in Happy Valley. While Harrar was prepped to take his improved skillset into the 2020 NCAA Tournament, the COVID-19 pandemic hindered the rangy frontcourt commodity from ever reaching the March Madness hardwood.
Although Harrar’s locker room occupancy is over a year removed from the Nittany Lions’ current mold, Myles Dread feels as though he owes it to Harrar and the rest of the 2020 crew to perform well for the group who mentored current veterans into their now well-documented roles.
“I put the onus on myself to make sure those guys felt the appreciation and got the support that ‘Hey, I’m going out there and this is an extension of you guys,’” Dread said. “Me and John talk here and there, and he’s just always telling me, ‘Just keep leading, and do the best you can.’ We got here, and we’re here to stay.”
Under Shrewsberry’s first-year guidance, Harrar picked up All-Big Ten honorable mention honors behind career-high distinctions in points and rebounds per outing. In total, Harrar averaged a double-double, consisting of 10.6 points and 10.3 rebounds nightly as the Nittany Lions’ most consistent producer underneath.
While Harrar’s on-court efforts gave Big Ten opponents fits on a nightly basis, his unparalleled work ethic off the floor helped Penn State hoops grow from a lowly, regional name into a brand performing in the national limelight.
After all matchups, Harrar would continue to work on his craft in the weight room, regardless of if the Nittany Lions finished the bout off a win or a loss. While each of Shrewsberry’s five freshman pieces within Penn State’s recently-inked generational recruiting class never shared the court with Harrar, his former diligence has, in turn, carried its weight into the next iteration of young stars.
“John lifted after every game, [and] he was in the weight room,” Shrewsberry said. “[Freshman] Kebba [Njie] has never played with John, but when I go back through after my press conference to go back to my office, Kebba now lifts after every single game. There are guys in the practice gym getting shots up after every single game if they didn’t play. All of those [things], I attribute that to John [and] what he did here and how he led here.”
Following the Nittany Lions’ season-ending 69-61 loss to No. 9 Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals last March, Harrar said he would “be right behind the bench cheering” for the Nittany Lions the next time they would be in position for Big Ten Championship contention.
As a current member of Grupo Alega Cantabria, a professional basketball club in Spain, Harrar’s newfound role within the international crew has prevented him from viewing the Nittany Lions’ recent run of success through an in-person lens.
However, even throughout the physical, 6’9” forward’s grueling schedule overseas, he’s made time to communicate with Shrewsberry regarding the state of the current unit. While it’s unlikely Harrar’s current coaches will allow him to catch today’s second-round battle with No. 2-seeded Texas in Des Moines, Shrewsberry knows his former bonafide building block will be locked in Europe.
“He sent me a couple of messages last week during the Big Ten Tournament,” Shrewsberry said. “It’s hard. His timing over there in Spain is a little different than our timing over here. Some of our guys on staff were texting, FaceTiming with him, telling him to jump on a plane and get over here. But, I think he likes his contract way too much and he can watch our game on TV.”
Heading into the Nittany Lions’ second NCAA Tournament matchup, it remains to be seen how far Shrewsberry’s crew will last throughout the four-week madness period.
But, whether Penn State falls to the Longhorns or cements an unprecedented deep run, Shrewsberry plans on honoring the current squad for lifting the program to its first tournament victory since 2001 in the near future.
Within Penn State’s current makeup, zero of the 15 roster members rep Harrar’s former No. 21 figure. However, when it becomes time to officially celebrate the accomplishments of Shrewsberry’s second-year squad, the head coach will make sure Harrar receives his fair share of praise and recognition, too.
“I’m so happy that I got a chance to coach him,” Shrewsberry said. “I feel like he’s a huge part of this run that we’re on right now. Even though he’s not on our team, he’s still a huge part of this. We’re going to find some way to honor him when we honor this team because he really deserves it.”
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