Texting with someone inside the Penn State men’s basketball program the word “tired” has come up on more than one occasion.
It is a rarity that these things are ever spoken out loud. Coaches and support staffs are often equipped with this strange sense of defiance to the concept of being tired. You don’t admit it because working closely with a team in the Big Ten requires you be tired at all times, and as former minutes collector Penn State forward Lamar Stevens once said: “Tired is a mindset.”
But if you were to consider the past year for Penn State basketball, being tired – in ways that go beyond having fresh legs – seems like a reasonable thing to feel at this point.
Nearly a year ago a historically great season came to a halt because of a historically awful pandemic that continues to kill thousands of people a day and turn all of our favorite things to do into our favorite memories to reminisce about.
A few months later, now deep into that same pandemic, their now former head coach was fired for a combination of factors just weeks before the season was set to begin for reasons that seem to range from bad and ignorant word choices coupled with some mixture of other nonspecific factors. It is telling that in the wake of Pat Chambers’ firing that few – if any – people nodded in mass agreement. It’s even more telling that the program itself seemed to briefly come unglued in minor revolt. But these things are neither here nor there, however they too, might be tiring.
And then there was COVID, again. A 17-day break including four postponed games and an uncertainty as to when the next game might be played. Each day an investment of time and energy, coming down to a test that was searching for the invisible.
And then there is the basketball itself. Penn State is many of the things that it was a year ago. It can be hot shooting, it can be feisty and edgy. It doesn’t not back down from the fight. All the same, wanting to win because it means a lot to you and being able to functionally win a basketball game against a gauntlet of Top 25 teams is a very different thing. It doesn’t have the size, and there is nothing it can do to change that fact.
All of it taxing. All of it racing towards a very real possibility that this team may not take the floor in 2021-22 under Ferry’s watch, or even with the same players on the team. Everything could change.
Which brings us to John Harrar and Penn State’s 79-65 loss to Illinois.
Anyone who has watched Penn State basketball understands the unfortunate reality Harrar faces. He is a fighter, unwilling to back down from a fight, unwilling to submit to the reality that states a very simple fact: he is strong, he is determined, but he is frequently overmatched and the defensive help around him can only do so much.
These truths are nobody’s fault and Harrar will go down as one of the hardest working and tenacious players Penn State has had in the past decade. However they are reality. Paired with defensive woes elsewhere by his teammates and cold shooting, what you see is what you get. Harrar is not at fault for being who he is, but he is the figurehead of Penn State’s current limitations in a conference that is a gauntlet of killers.
And what you saw on Tuesday night against Illinois was a culmination of all these things. What you saw was a tired team. It doesn’t make it “okay” in the sense of things people should be happy about. But it is what it is.
Like nearly every game in Big Ten play, Penn State came out swinging, managing to hang around with a former Top 10 team on the road. The Illini, who were looking to snap a losing streak, where equally are ready for the fight, eventually working out to a 42-28 halftime lead behind good shooting and Penn State’s hot-and-cold offense.
This was nothing changed in the second half, something the final score was indicative of.
Harrar – who has become something of the summation of Penn State’s season – looked tired. Up against the powerful Kofi Cockburn, Harrar and fellow big man Trent Buttrick gave their all, but it wasn’t enough do much anything in the moment.
Penn State put up numbers, since scoring requires made baskets but there were no final figures of note, a reality of a game in which you score so few points and give up so many. The Nittany Lions shot under 35% from the field and while Myreon Jones’ hit the 20 point mark for a fourth-straight game, it was largely a futile effort. [Seth Lundy was the only other Nittany Lion in double figures with 13 points.]
The biggest truth-teller of all may have been the look on Harrar’s face as he sat on the bench with seven minutes to go.
He looked tired.
The Nittany Lions looked tired, not in body, but perhaps soul. They will head home and take the floor again on Thursday. They might look tired then too.
And considering the year they’ve had, and the year they’re having. It’s hard not to blame them.