On a long and lonesome highway, east of Omaha, you could listen to the Penn State basketball team celebrate a much-needed win. It would be hard to find a team that has faced more adversity than Jim Ferry’s Lions but they have not yet thrown in the towel. A path to the NCAA Tournament remains, though it will likely require three wins to close out the season and two wins in the Big Ten tournament.
There has been a great deal of recognition this year for a basketball team that currently has an 8-12 record. Until it lost 4 consecutive games, experts had them on the cusp of going to the Big Dance. Each win from this point will bring the team a step closer to getting back into the conversation. Another loss would all but end their chances.
The critics would have fans turn away from the team because it has not been a perfect season. Sometimes you can hear the naysayers talk and then, other times you can’t. It’s the same old cliches but this current team is not like a typical Penn State group.
There is no go-to player at the end of the game to lean on for tough baskets, the Lions do their work by committee. The front-court is thin but it has done its job for much of the season. Penn State is missing a few body parts compared to teams in the league that are heading to the post-season but it has the most important component of all.
The heart of the team is as strong as any in the country. Find two players with as much determination, drive, fight and inspiration in them as Jamari Wheeler and John Harrar and I’ll buy you lunch so we can talk about it.
A Recruiting Dead Year
I don’t follow college sports recruiting news because it is so inaccurate that it is a complete waste of time. Basketball recruiting news tends to be slightly more reliable than what we get on the football side, which is a joke perpetrated by sports reporters to keep clicks coming during the off-season. Those who consider themselves experts in the field gave Penn State’s group a few years back no love at all.
The naysayers said that John Harrar was not a true division one basketball recruit. If he contributed at all, they said, it would be after years of developing. Harrar then went on to play a critical role on an NIT Championship team as a freshman. He’s slowly gotten better in the past years and is now a legitimate force in the paint. Any team in the conference would have been happy to have recruited John Harrar, contrary to what the people who believed the recruiting propaganda would tell you.
Jamari Wheeler is no different. Any team in the Big Ten would love to have him on their team and yet he was considered a ‘miss’ in the recruiting world. Wheeler has developed into a shooting threat from outside when he is left alone, a far cry from when he shot 16% from 3-point land through two full seasons in Happy Valley. While no one questioned his other abilities, his lack of offense had become a liability.
Wheeler worked hard and it paid off. He shot 39% last season and is at 37% this year from 3-point range. That is enough to make opposing teams have to guard him when he is all alone outside, a change from a couple of years ago. That opens things up for his teammates. It also comes in handy when the team needs points and Wheeler has provided plenty of timely buckets this year.
The negative trolls that inhabit the recruiting news talked trash for years about John Harrar and Jamari Wheeler, and said that they and Trent Buttrick were not good players, therefore their recruiting class was a dud. The dud was the thoughts inside the head of the negative Nick and Nancy’s that for some reason spend their time online trying to drag down a basketball team and their fans.
The Lions got a block and four steals from the center position, which may have been the most important group on the floor. John Harrar played 28 minutes and without his contribution the game would have gone to Nebraska. His 14 rebounds and timely scoring carried the team but when he was on the bench the drop-off was not such that it cost the Lions a chance to win.
Trent Buttrick and Abdou Tsimbila played 12 critical minutes, allowing Harrar to rest enough to play at his maximum efficiency. TsimButtrick combined for 5 points, 6 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block and a made 3-pointer. After missing five games due to the decision of Jim Ferry not to use him, Tsimbila has given the team productive minutes in two consecutive games.
It’s unrealistic to think that John Harrar can play 30 minutes per game under the conditions that he faces on the low-post in Big Ten competition. If TsimButtrick can utilize their ability to hit three pointers and block shots, it will give Jim Ferry strategic substitution possibilities to attack other teams rather than be on their heels when Harrar is on the bench.
Jamari Wheeler played so much better than his numbers indicate but his numbers look pretty good. The 3 of 8 from behind the arc may not jump off the page but he took shots to make the Cornhuskers run out at him and some of them went in. The steals are a nice statistic but if you asked competitors, they would say that it is not fun to play against Wheeler. His intensity is infectious to he teammates and to opponents he is like an infection that envelops their entire body.
During the post-game interview, Jim Ferry mentioned that he has known Wheeler since Wheeler was 16 years old. Ferry recruited Wheeler to play for him while he was the coach at Duquesne, but when Ferry lost that job, Wheeler opened his recruiting and ended up at Penn State. Wheeler runs the offense and he also spearheads the defense.
Myles Dread got 32 minutes, played great defense and scored 16 points. With Seth Lundy struggling, Dread’s contribution has been important. It’s fascinating to watch Dread cover up to four positions on any given night on defense, a trait few players can boast.