By Noah Allison
Card Nation held its breath awaiting an announcement from forward Montrezl Harrell on whether he would declare for the NBA draft or return for his junior season. A first year in the ACC without him could have proven quite long and frustrating, but alas the youngest of this last year’s captains has returned and no rim is safe.
After averaging 14 points and eight rebounds as a sophomore Harrell was named the AAC’s most-improved player. His 98 dunks shattered Louisville’s single-season dunk record of 59 and his 12 double-doubles and 311 rebounds led the Cardinals.
With one simple announcement the spirits and attitudes for next year took a giant leap forward.
“I’m ready.” Harrell said. “I’m ready to get back into the gym with my team and with my coach and prepare to have another great season. If the young guys come in prepared to work we still have a good core group of guys that were on the team this year and we have a lot of experience from this year coming back.”
Harrell will be the prominent big-man on a roster that along with returning red-shirt sophomore center Mangok Mathiang at six-foot ten, boasts a lot of height.
At center the Cardinals bring in seven-foot-two Matz Stockman, seven-foot-one Anas Osama Mahmoud and six-foot-ten Chinanu Onuaku. Backing up Harrell is six-foot-nine power forward Jaylen Johnson.
At six-foot-eight, 235 pounds Harrell may be the shortest of the group but is undoubtedly the biggest. His tenacious work ethic and relentless motor is what separates Harrell from the competition and its nothing but beneficial for this young squad of bigs to learn from the best.
“I feel like with the work ethic I have and the way that I compete those guys will come along,” Harrell said. “I can tell you first hand being a freshman coming in here that first week and a half kicked my butt. It comes to a point where you just get tired of it and you go to work from there. I feel like those guys will follow behind me and try to do some of the same things I’m doing and just work as hard as I am.”
Working as hard as Harrell is easier said than done. There is a reason Harrell made such a big improvement from his freshman to sophomore year. But Harrell isn’t just coming back and getting better for his draft stock. As the face of this program now he is getting better to keep the standard of Louisville basketball.
“Coming back I know I am going to have to play a huge role in our program and I’m fine with that. I’m fine with being one of the go-to players on the team and that doesn’t faze me, that just gives me extra motivation to work,” Harrell continues. “Having that spotlight is really an honor so you just have to take it and use it as motivation to get better.”
A returning captain Harrell joins up with senior forward Wayne Blackshear to captain this squad into the ACC. With a year of leadership experience under his belt Harrell carries with him first hand experience of being a part of championship basketball and will not shy away from expecting it.
“Honestly I am just one of those guys who are going to try to tell it like it is. I’m not trying to sugar coat anything because when you’re out there we are all playing for the same thing, to win the game,” Harrell said. “If someone is not doing something right and I feel they should know better on what they’re doing then I am going to be the one to speak on it. I am going to hold everybody accountable including myself.”
Harrell returning gives the Cardinals a chance to have a starting rotation of all returning players. The six freshmen coming in and returning bench players will all have to step up.
Harrell is the difference maker on this team and with it likely being his last season there is no doubt that he has more than just personal growth on the mind. A chance at another national championship is hard for any competitor to pass up.
“I feel like I can get back to another one, with the team that we have everybody just has to get to work in the gym, listen to what Coach P says and buy into the program,” Harrell concludes. “If guys come in willing to work and get better than there is no telling what we can do.”