Evolving Montrezl Harrell ready to dominate college hoops

Louisville College Basketball Ranking

College Contributor Network

A storm has been brewing for the past couple of years in Louisville. It thunders down on any who comes to town and its effects have been felt as far as Indianapolis, Lexington, Atlanta, Cincinnati and New York City. Over the past summer, the storm has been gaining momentum, getting stronger, and is ready to unleash its fury on the entire country. That storm is Hurricane Harrell.

Montrezl Harrell made a name for himself dunking on hundreds of unsuspecting opponents with power and passion. He was a key part of the University of Louisville team that made it to the Sweet Sixteen in 2014, and the national championship team the year before. At the end of last season, everyone thought he was headed into the NBA, including Harrell. But Harrell had a change of heart and on April 14 he announced he was staying in Louisville for his junior season. This would take the 2014-15 Cardinals from possible bubble team, to national title contenders once again.

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season, and his rebounding average led the team. His 7-foot-4 wingspan helped him produce some of the nations most dominating dunks last season. But in the last two seasons, that has been his signature, and perhaps only move. Harrell made two three-pointers in his first two seasons as a Cardinal.

After last season's disappointing early ending, losing to Kentucky in the Sweet 16, Coach Pitino and his team were left with a feeling of unfinished business. Possibly the scariest part about Harrell for his opponents, is the extra work he's been putting in. Countless hours by himself in the team's practice facilities, spent on not just dunks, but three-point shooting and free throws, two things Harrell wasn't known for before this year.

In the first team scrimmages and exhibition games, there were dunks as usual. But there were also some new sights, Harrell shooting from the top of the key, and maybe more importantly, being a real team leader. Gone are the days of Harrell coming in, dominating in the paint and little else. This season, the No. 8 Cardinals welcomed back a seasoned veteran who could no only hold his own the paint, but hold his team together and possibly lead them to a fourth-consecutive 30-win season.

Louisville's season opening matchup against Minnesota proved to be a preview of this new Cardinal team sans-Russ Smith. Harrell's first points of the game came not with a backboard-shattering dunk, but a sweet three-pointer, the first of three on the night. A leader emerged as Harrell scored a career-high 30 points, but that's not the only important number to remember about the junior's performance. Harrell shot nine-of-10 from the free throw line and had seven rebounds. And two powerhouse dunks.

Harrell's work in the offseason has made him a genuine threat anywhere on the court. His ridiculous athleticism makes him virtually indefensible in the paint, but now he can step out and shoot a three on you. And it won't be a fluke.

It's no wonder that the junior is already generating national hype. Las Vegas has him at 7/1 odds for Associated Press Player of the Year, the third-best odds in the country. The two players ahead of him? Duke's Jhalil Okafor and Arizona's Stanley Johnson. Harrell was also named a preseason first-team AP All-American, CBS also named him a preseason first-team All-American. He was named to the Preseason All-ACC team with 58 votes. Not bad for a kid from Tarboro, N.C. who three months ago, all anyone thought he could do was shatter backboards.

There is much on the line for this Louisville team. In its first season in the prestigious ACC, the Cardinals are not only looking to make a name for themselves in a new conference, they're also looking for a ninth-consecutive NCAA tournament appearance, fourth-consecutive Sweet 16 and, maybe, even a fourth national title.

None of that is possible without Harrell. He has developed into the backbone of this young team. Also returning are Chris Jones, Terry Rozier, Wayne Blackshear and other key players, but none have shown the transformation that Harrell has. The season is just beginning, and other leaders may emerge. But Harrell has already announced his presence at the front of the team, and the nation.

So batten down the hatches, because Hurricane Harrell is about to take the nation by storm. Don't be lured into a false sense of security by his big smile and outgoing personality. He will shoot on you,and punish you at the free-throw line. Oh, and he'll dunk on anyone who gets in his way. This storm will wreak havoc on all opponents in its path, and it will sure be fun to watch.

Annie Moore is a junior at the University of Louisville majoring in Communications with a Sport Administration minor. She believes Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. Follow her on Twitter: @AnyMoreSports
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