LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Montrezl Harrell describes his sophomore season as a step in a process.
The journey has been a success thus far based on the dominant performances he has already posted for No. 7 Louisville.
While Harrell figured to build on his promising freshman season, what he has done so for the Cardinals (23-4, 12-2 American Athletic Conference) has been impressive. The 6-foot-8 power forward has developed into an imposing presence with his dunks, rebounds and blocked shots – all pivotal in Louisville’s quest to repeat as national champions.
Harrell had 21 points, 10 rebounds and a block in Saturday’s 58-57 victory at first-place Cincinnati, earning conference player of the week honors.
”I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given and elevate my game,” said Harrell, who comes in with six double-doubles in his last 12 games and season averages of 13 points and 8.2 rebounds per contest.
Next up for Louisville is Temple (7-19, 2-12); Harrell had 22 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks against the Owls Feb. 14.
Harrell has more than doubled his freshman averages, demonstrating his take-charge approach. He has also added a school-record 65 dunks this season, with some recent slams leaving the basket support shaking several seconds after the Cardinals have set up on defense.
That’s not shocking, considering Harrell’s intensity and athleticism. As if his muscular build, fierce scowl and 7-6 wingspan aren’t threatening enough, his quickness and uncanny timing in suddenly appearing to make a block, grab a rebound or throw down a lob pass presents another challenge.
Asked if he’s surprised by some of his plays upon video review, Harrell said, ”at times I have been, but during a game you don’t really think about it until you see yourself (on film).
”When you’re in a game, there’s not too much I think about. It just evolves. I’m just trying to do everything to give my team the best chance to win. I’m just all over the court, trying to be everywhere I can.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Wednesday that Harrell’s play is rubbing off on 6-10 redshirt freshman Mangok Mathiang and complements the aggressive play of 6-9 senior Stephan Van Treese.
There’s no mistaking Harrell’s fearlessness that began to emerge during last spring’s championship run. Despite gaining attention this season for monster dunks, his offensive repertoire includes a nice turnaround jumper.
Pitino adds that there is room for improvement – namely 47 percent shooting from the line – but is happy with Harrell’s development.
”What you want to see as the season goes along (is) improvement in your execution as a team,” the coach said, ”and then you want to see your parts get better.
”Montrezl is developing into a good passer, a better shooter. … He has become a better low-post player, he’s blocking more shots of late, grabbing more defensive rebounds of late. The next thing he’s got to improve on is free-throw shooting.”
The Tarboro, N.C., native has definitely had plenty of chances to hone his game. Harrell spent last summer helping Team USA’s Under-19 squad win the gold medal at the world championships, an experience he said inspired him to raise his locker-room profile.
Harrell returned from competition in the Czech Republic to be named a team captain with senior guards Russ Smith and Luke Hancock as a result, not to mention supplanting Chane Behanan as the starter.
Harrell’s playing time has grown with Behanan’s dismissal from the team in December – he’s averaging 28 minutes per game, 12 more than last year – but he’s relishing the extra workload and his active role in helping the Cardinals try to reach their third straight Final Four.
Active being the operative word.
”I’ve always looked at myself as more of a physical-type player,” he said. ”I know the aspects of my game and the things I can do. I just know that to succeed in this game I had to play hard, play physical, run and be involved at all times.”