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Penn State Basketball: Set For One Final Season, Reaves Has Seen It All And Has The Bruises To Prove It

by on October 17, 2018 2:30 PM

You might not see the bruises and scratches on Josh Reaves' arms from a distance but he is in fact peppered with them. One of the few Nittany Lions without tattoos, the marks are their own ever-changing story of what the game of basketball has left behind. Fighting through a foul here, a dive for a loose ball there, a charge only deepening the various hues nearly gone but not yet forgotten.

For every bruise there is a story.

To know Josh Reaves is to know effort, he is Penn State basketball's energy man, the heart of a team that prides itself in playing harder than everyone else.

Reaves will probably never be a prolific scorer but his value to the team is immeasurable. Between his elite defensive skill set and an intangible truth that the Nittany Lions are simply a better team when he is on the floor, his value has no price tag. It was no mistake that when Reaves was briefly suspended in the middle of last season that Penn State would lose three of the ensuing four games. No coincidence that his return saw the Nittany Lions win six of the next seven.

But life hasn't always been this easy for Reaves, not that it is easy now. Like so many players who have taken the court at the Bryce Jordan Center their is a chapter on failure, an inescapable reality for a program that has come so far only to just now stand toe-to-toe with teams that might beat them anyway. The marketing slogan "The Climb" isn't about surpassing the Michigan States of the world, it's about arriving at a place where losing is the result of a competitive game. It's a race to become equals and equality doesn't always lead to winning.

And that climb can be tiresome, it can take a lot out of you. Those who climb Everest spend more time getting to the summit than they do standing on it. In those final steps mountaineers claw for their own survival as much as they do the achievement. It's awful, it's difficult, it's trying.

"I don't show it," Reaves said of life's fatigue, he attributes his fast hands to a larger, not always friendly older brother. "I've always been taught that if somebody sees a sign of weakness they're going to attack it. I've adapted to it. It's just mental. I'm the older guy now, I can't really show weakness."

Reaves wasn't always the old guy though, he didn't always have to hide the pain. If Penn State's NIT Championship can be disregarded by the vast majority of college basketball, it shouldn't be overlooked by the people who know Reaves. He is a player who came to Penn State during a time when nothing was for certain and when nothing was guaranteed. If Tony Carr enjoyed the party, Reaves sent the invites, not knowing who might show up.

The lowest moment, the counterbalance to that NIT Title, can be found in Reaves' freshman season, a 92-65 loss to Michigan State on the road. A beatdown by the fifth best team in the nation at the time. Nowhere to hide, no way to sugarcoat it, Penn State wasn't good enough, the effort wasn't good enough.

And effort is everything to Reaves.

"We came back and it everybody was just getting after everybody and competing their hardest and everyone was just trying to get the best out of the other person so we could be our best as a team," Reaves recalled. "I felt like that was the hardest week because I felt like I was giving everything I had, but I realized I can go even harder. And people were attacking me and going after me every single day in practice and I'm giving everything I have and that's not enough."

It broke Reaves, at least for a few days. Losing, he could handle, or at least swallow. But his career up to that point had been predicated on something he was now struggling with. He thought he was trying hard, he thought it would be enough, he thought he had nothing left, nowhere else to dig the energy from.

Now what?

"For people to tell me I'm not doing enough, that you're not bringing enough energy, you're not doing what you say you're capable of doing or that we've seen. I felt like I was letting people down," Reaves added. "I felt like I wasn't myself, I felt like I wasn't doing enough and that kills me. That was a time in my life that I was just hurt. I just couldn't do it."

The remedy and perhaps the spark that would start the slow burn towards success, a conversation with teammates Brandon Taylor and Jordan Dickerson, both seasoned veterans, both having faced their fair share of ups and mostly downs.

But first Reaves had to let it out.

"I said 'I'm so sorry, I can't be this ineffective and I don't want to be that person, what can I do," Reaves said on Tuesday, leaning back in his chair. "And they just sat me down and talked to me and we just grew from there. We kept getting closer and closer and at the end of the year we won a couple games we had no business winning. We won a couple games that people didn't even give us a shot in."

"That was the hardest time."

Penn State would go on to beat No. 22 Indiana, and No.4 Iowa, the latter of the two games Reaves would register three steals, a block and four assists. He was all over the place, the energy was there. In total the Nittany Lions would win five of their last nine games including a stretch of four wins in five games.

It wasn't the promised land, but it was a glimmer of hope.

Years later Penn State sits in a very different place as a program. There are questions still yet to be answered, but at times the Nittany Lions played basketball as well as anyone last season. They have memories to prove it, a banner to show for it.

And for many that might not seem like much, a blip on a very long and very fast moving college basketball landscape, but for players like Josh Reaves, who have seen the very bottom, and have climbed back out in such a short time, it means more than you'll ever know.

"It was an amazing feeling knowing that we've come so far," Reaves said. "We've stuck to what coach has been saying, we've stuck to the game plan, we've stuck to our foundation of what got us here and that we have people who are so willing to do change what they've been in the past to be the best team we can be now, the best players we can be now."

Reaves pausing for a moment to reflect, smiling ever so slightly.

"It's just so rewarding and it's such a great feeling."



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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