By Noah Allison:
Harrell stepped into an advantageous yet demanding role on the 2012-2013 Louisville basketball squad. He was the only freshman to dress and the only freshman to contribute in every game of the eventual national championship season.
With such experience and talent ahead of him, it was not a time for the young Harrell to ease into the program. His hustle off the bench had him averaging 16.2 minutes a game, 3.6 rebounds and 5.7 points. Throughout the season, the freshman Harrell hauled in a total of 145 rebounds, 27 blocks, 20 steals and 226 points on a .508 shooting percentage.
But it wasn’t merely his numbers that led to his consistent level of playing time. It was the thing that every coach and fan of U of L or opponent alike saw: his relentless effort. With an unstoppable motor, the raw talent, uncanny athletic ability and 7-foot-plus wingspan played an integral part on the nation’s best defense.
Harrell, as eager to learn and improve as any player in the country, benefitted greatly from starting off on one of the best cast of characters U of L has ever had together in the locker room. He didn’t miss a chance to look up to and learn from the veterans that led the Cardinals to glory.
Pitino knew that he would be a key contributor from early on in his freshman season.
“I’m real impressed with Montrezl Harrell. Everybody remarks about Gorgui’s wingspan, but Montrezl has got a 7-foot-6 wingspan. He has a strong desire. He’s a sponge, and he’s always trying to learn,” Pitino said.
Montrezl started his torrent on the U of L dunk record books his freshman year. Of the 97 field goals that he scored, 43 of them were dunks. He just got better throughout the year.
His coming out party was at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament championship game against Syracuse. In the second half, Louisville was losing by 16 points and couldn’t seem to penetrate the Orange’s zone defense. Then came the boom. Louisville went on a 44-8 run and ended up winning the game by 17 points, thanks in part to Harrell’s then career high 20-point and seven-rebound performance.
He simply crept around the rim, waited for Peyton Siva to penetrate and received the little dump-off pass, finishing more often than not with an incredibly efficient dunk. His effort and fight around the rim was one of the many important factors of the great comeback.
After his freshman season, Harrell helped the USA Basketball 2013 Men’s U-19 World Championship team win a gold medal. Harrell started every game in the nine-game event and averaged 10.6 points and 3.7 rebounds and shot at a .575 shooting percentage.
In the gold medal game against Serbia, he led the USA squad with 17 points, four rebounds and four blocked shots and was 8-of-16 shooting from the field. He played in 28 minutes on the way to earning a gold medal.
The off-season performance on the international stage was just a glimpse of the transition Harrell was going to take from good to great in the Louisville program.
Heading into the 2013-2014, season it was all about the two senior captains and Louisville legends, Russ Smith and Luke Hancock. But partway through the offseason, Rick Pitino added Montrezl Harrell, an underclassman, to the rank of captain, where he joined the two seniors in the leadership role.
This was the same Harrell that just a year before was a freshman role player who showed glimpses of greatness but didn’t necessarily look polished enough to take such a leap in prowess on the Louisville team.
But the offseason of work that he put in made a world of difference.
“Montrezl Harrell has been the hardest worker and the most vocal leader in practice so far, and that’s why he was named a tri-captain,” Pitino said. “He’s a total different person than he was a season ago. He’s not only more vocal now, but I’ve seen as much improvement in him from freshman to sophomore year as any player I’ve ever coached.”
It was evident from the first Red and White scrimmage that this was a new player. He was driving down the court and dunking on anybody and everybody. It was relentless; it was effortless; it was awesome. And heading into the American Athletic Conference with a fair amount of undersized teams, it was beginning to look scary for the competition.
With Smith and Hancock dishing out the assists, it was dunk city. If you were there to witness I don’t need to describe it; he simply dunked all the time. So much so that he almost doubled the school’s original single season dunk record. The original record was tied at 59 by Pervis Ellison and Chane Behanan.
Harrell, on the other hand, finished his season with 97 dunks, posting multiple six-dunk single game performances. Because of his highly efficient method of scoring, Trez’ .609 shooting percentage was best in the AAC and sixth best nationally.
But it wasn’t his flashy scoring that was most pivotal to Louisville that season; it was his efforts as a big-man in general.
On a team that struggled to rebound the ball, Harrell dominated, leading Louisville with 311 rebounds on the season. On a team that had the second highest career scorer in program history in Smith, Harrell was second on the team in scoring with 519 points. He doubled his scoring and rebounding from his first year, averaging 14 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
He had 12 double-doubles on the season, including 11 in the last 22 games. He scored in double digits 30 times and had eight 20-point performances. He grabbed double-digit rebounds in 14 games. His rebounding total had him finish second overall in the AAC and 20th nationally.
He posted a career-high 25-point performance and also hauled in 12 rebounds on the road at Memphis. In all three games against the eventual national champion UConn Huskies, he scored at least 18 points and had a double-double in all three.
Harrell was named the AAC’s Most Improved player. He also averaged a double-double in U of L’s three NCAA Tournament games. It seemed that after such a season he would surely declare for the NBA draft, but alas, he returned and completely changed the outlook on Louisville basketball this year.
When Montrezl Harrell decided to return for his junior season, the Louisville basketball outlook changed from a tough team to play to a legitimate Final Four contender.
As one of just three upperclassmen on the roster, Harrell knew that he wasn’t just coming back to improve as a basketball player; but he was coming back as a leader and a star.
“I know I am going to have to play a huge role in our program and I am fine with that,” Harrell said. “I’m fine with having to be one of the go-to players on the team. That doesn’t faze me, that just gives me extra motivation to work harder to better my game. Having that spotlight is really an honor, and you just have to use it as motivation to get better.”
And he has gotten better. Harrell was named as a preseason first team All-American. The junior power-forward is no longer just a dunker, either. He has expanded his game and is also able to knock down shots from outside. The first points of the Louisville season came off a three-point shot that he knocked down against Minnesota.
In that season opener, he went on to score a career high 30 points. He has scored in double figures in 15 of 19 games this season and has seven double-doubles. He has at least five rebounds in all but one game that he has played in this year. His 9.1 rebounds per game average is the highest on the team while his 15.2 points per game average is the second highest on the team. Harrell’s .579 shooting percentage is also highest on the team.
On the season in his 18 games played he has 164 rebounds and 271 points.
Harrell hauled in a career-high 17 rebounds in a win over UNC Wilimington earlier this year.
In his return to Madison Square Garden, Harrell led Louisville to a victory over Indiana and in doing so passed Pervis Ellison to be U of L’s all-time leading dunker. The record had stood at 162. Currently, in three years, Harrell holds the record at 182 career dunks.
Most recently, with an 18-point performance in a road victory over Pittsburgh Harrell reached the thousand point mark. He is the 66th player in the history of the Louisville program to reach a thousand points in his career. Louisville is second only to North Carolina in the number of thousand point career players. He currently has 1,016 points in his two-and-a-half year career at Louisville.
Of all the accolades, though, it is the recognition Harrell is receiving on the national scale that is most noteworthy. With two months left of regular season play, Harrell has been named to the Oscar Robertson Award watch list, the Wooden Award watch list and the Naismith national player of the year watch list.
It comes as no surprise that in the midst of his junior season, all eyes are on Harrell, and people can’t wait to watch and see what comes next.