You are excused if you never heard of John Harrar before the 2017-2018 college hoops season opened up. Hell, you're excused if you didn't know Harrar was on the Nittany Lions' roster in, say, January.
The 6-9, 243-lb. true freshman from Wallingford, Pa., saw no action whatsoever over a six-game stretch in January, including the Lions' stunning road win at then-No. 13 Ohio State thanks to Tony Carr's buzzer beater. In fact, Harrar's game log is a collection of one minute, two minutes, eight minutes (thanks, Coppin State) - you get the point. Aside from his array of bench celebration poses and gyrations (the guy was All-Big Ten in celebrating Shep Garner treys), it wasn't looking like Harrar would contribute outside of throwaway minutes.
Hailing from Strath Haven High School, Harrar came to Penn State last April in a fairly surprising way. Harrar decommitted from Army on a football scholarship to join Chambers' squad, but playing time was going to be tough right away. Mike Watkins stood in his way, with senior Julian Moore and transfer Satchel Pierce in line for any bench minutes. In fact, we assumed he'd sit this year out as a redshirt.
Harrar's growth - and I can't believe I'm writing this sentence - Essentially offset Watkins' absence.
The freshman's trajectory changed in late February once Watkins went down for the year with a knee injury. Even with Watkins out, Harrar didn't see an immediate spike in minutes as Chambers relied on his senior Moore to pick up the slack. Harrar looked overwhelmed in only six minutes against Nebraska, the Lions' first game knowing they wouldn't have their starting center. He didn't look remotely ready for the moment, which was understandable for an 18-year-old who spent the year riding the pine. The Huskers handed Penn State its third loss in a row by relentlessly attacking the basket with little resistance. Without Watkins, the Lions' season looked dead in the water heading into the Big Ten tournament.
Chambers surprisingly inserted Harrar into the starting lineup for the Lions' first game at Madison Square Garden against Northwestern. With the season on the line, it was a shocking decision that actually paid off. While Harrar didn't exactly light up the box score, or even play a lion's share of the minutes, he did flash the skills that earned him a Big Ten basketball scholarship. He was a rebounding machine, hauling in a combined nine rebounds in 17 minutes during Penn State's two wins in the Big Ten tournament.
Then came the NIT, which Penn State entered as a No. 4 seed. Chambers increased Harrar's minutes (19.2 average over the five-game run) and the freshman... well, he kept producing. Setting screens, diving for loose balls, snagging boards (10 rebounds before halftime in the NIT Championship), altering shots, garbage buckets, free throws, various pronunciations of his last name. His activity, his proclivity for boxing out and using his body in general? Hot damn. Fran Fraschilla could not stop complimenting Harrar during the NIT Final Four.
Harrar's growth - and I can't believe I'm writing this sentence - essentially offset Watkins' absence.
Or, as Carr put it before the NIT semifinals:
"I watched Johnny put in tons of hard work before practice, after practice, when there's a game and it's definitely paying off for him right now," Carr said. "He's a big part to our team, he's the anchor of our defense. I'm just happy to see him get that chance and make the most of it."
Chambers, when asked about the NBA early-entry buzz around his program (including Watkins, who adamantly said he's returning to Happy Valley for 2018-19) in the afterglow of an NIT championship, had to toss in a compliment for his freshman who uses his backside like a battering ram:
"How about big John, not saying he's a pro but he just got us 12 rebounds. We've got ourselves some good big men."
It's not the NCAA Tournament, but it really doesn't matter. Harrar, you - and the Lions - are a champ.