John Harrar began preparing for his opportunity long before he was thrust into Penn State’s starting lineup and earning quality minutes during the Nittany Lion basketball team's run through the NIT.
After games at the beginning of the season, when Harrar was playing sparingly, the freshman stayed at the Bryce Jordan Center and pushed himself on the VersaClimber.
If he played two minutes that night, he worked out 38 minutes.
“I used to ask him, ‘Why you doing that?’” Penn State guard Shep Garner said. “He was like, ‘Because, you know, I didn’t play today. I didn’t play, so I want to get my work in like I played.’ And all of that work that he was putting in is starting to pay off.”
Harrar has started the last six games in place of injured forward Mike Watkins, proving to be a reliable role player for the Nittany Lions as they advanced to the NIT semifinals to take on Mississippi State at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. Harrar is averaging 18.3 minutes in three NIT games, after averaging 3.8 minutes in his first 19 games. The 6-foot-9 forward, who was known as “Superman” on his AAU team, has taken advantage of his opportunity after months of preparation.
His teammates knew he would be ready after seeing his workout routine.
“I’ve played with guys that worked really hard,” Penn State forward Lamar Stevens said. “He’s just a different, a different animal. He lifts every single day. Always finds time to lift, always just looking to do a little bit extra.”
Stevens had never seen anyone work out after a game like Harrar did. His teammates often saw Harrar on the VersaClimber — an exercise machine that simulates mountain climbing — in the practice facility after games. Even after the team arrived home late from road games, while the rest of the Nittany Lions were leaving the Bryce Jordan Center, guard Tony Carr said he saw Harrar changing into workout gear.
“For him to do that just showed me how much he cares about the team and personally how much he cares about himself,” Carr said. “How he just wanted to stay in tip-top shape and just make sure that when his number was called, he was ready.”
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers didn’t see Harrar’s postgame workouts — he heads home and watches film — but he heard about them. Chambers learned about Harrar going hard for 38 minutes in the practice facility after playing two minutes that night.
It reminded Chambers of former Boston University guard Matt Griffin, who is now the coach at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia. Chambers has told his players from Roman Catholic about Griffin’s tireless work ethic. Chambers said Griffin vomited while training with a wrestler — and he still finished the workout.
“Matt Griffin would do whatever he needed to do,” Chambers said Monday in New York. “The guy set the standard. He worked harder than anybody.”
Chambers said Harrar’s work ethic compares to Griffin’s.
Even before the Nittany Lion coach found out about Harrar’s extra effort, he knew he’d be able to rely on the freshman this season after seeing Harrar compete every day at practice during the team’s trip to the Bahamas in August. When the Nittany Lions’ season started, Chambers watched Harrar shoot free throws, develop his post moves and work on his midrange jumper in the practice facility. And when Chambers wasn’t watching, despite seeing limited minutes, Harrar was in the gym.
“He just kept working, kept fighting, kept competing, kept getting better,” Chambers said. “Never put his head down, never sulked, just knew his chance would come. And that’s what you’re so happy about.
“Sometimes throughout my tenure, some guys would sulk and when they got their chance again, they didn’t embrace it. They didn’t seize it. They weren’t ready for it. John was always preparing for his chance.”
His chance came when Watkins — who averaged 12.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game this season — went down with a right-knee injury against Michigan on Feb. 21. Eight days later, in the team’s Big Ten tournament opener against Northwestern, Harrar earned the first start of his career at Madison Square Garden.
Harrar has been in the Nittany Lions’ starting lineup ever since, helping his team return to New York for the NIT semifinals.
“He’s probably the hardest-working guy on the team,” Stevens said. “He deserves everything. He deserves all the credit he’s getting.”
With John Harrar in the starting lineup, the Nittany Lions have won five of their last six games. The freshman has played double-digit minutes in four of those games. He’s coming off a four-point, nine-rebound performance in 22 minutes against Marquette, and he scored four points, grabbed six rebounds and recorded two blocks in a season-high 23 minutes against Notre Dame. After averaging 0.9 points and 0.5 rebounds in 3.8 minutes in his first 19 games, he’s averaging 2.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 13.5 minutes in the last six games.