Montrezl Harrell transitions into a leader at Louisville

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

It’s been a whirlwind year-and-a-half for Louisville sophomore Montrezl Harrell, and Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino has noticed plenty of changes in his 6-foot-8 forward since he stepped on Louisville’s campus last year.

“He wouldn’t talk last year,” Pitino joked to NBC Sports. “You thought he was just a shy kid from rural North Carolina, and now we can’t get him to shut up.”

Hailing from the small town of Tarboro, North Carolina — with a population of just over 13,000 — Harrell has quickly made a name for himself in the college basketball world after his breakout performance during Louisville’s championship run. He followed that up with a strong showing at the FIBA U-19 World Championships in Prague this summer with USA Basketball.

But up until this season, Montrezl (pronounced mon-TREZ, the “L” is silent) did most his talking through the powerful way he played the game of basketball.

At 6-foot-8, 235 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Harrell’s raw power was often on display in the form of thundering dunks and his play above the rim. Harrell once had 18 dunks in one 51-point high school game and also broke a backboard during practice his senior year of high school, but throughout many of those efforts he remained quiet. That didn’t change through much of last season, as he became one of the Cardinals key players off the bench.

“Montrezl is an easy transition (for us this season) because his personality has changed. He was a shy, introverted person and he’s taken on much more of a leadership role,” Pitino said. “He’s a kid from a rural part of North Carolina, he grew up in a very small town. So now he comes into a city and he has a great ending to his season and I think he’s taken it upon himself to show more leadership.”

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Montrezl is now more of a vocal leader as a sophomore, and will earn much more playing time this season after averaging 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16 minutes as a freshman. But the transition from quiet country boy to NCAA Champion and potential NBA lottery pick took quite a few steps.

Harrell was originally committed to Virginia Tech and signed a letter of intent in the fall of 2011 when Seth Greenberg was coaching the Hokies. After Greenberg was replaced by former assistant James Johnson, Harrell wanted a fresh start and the Hokies allowed him out of his Letter of Intent in May of 2012.

Spending the year at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia, Harrell was a consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school, but fell more in the 70-90 range as many recruiting analysts didn’t expect him to be a major initial contributor.

But with a lack of big men available in the spring before the 2012-13 season, Harrell picked up scholarship offers from Alabama, Cincinnati, Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina before deciding on Louisville. Harrell’s relationship with Louisville assistant coach Kevin Keatts, the former head coach at Hargrave that placed Montrezl at the school without ever coaching him there, paid off for the Cardinals.

“We were lucky because Coach Keatts placed him at Hargrave, so we were lucky there,” Pitino said of Harrell’s recruitment. “But he was very shy; he was painfully shy. But he grew out of that in a hurry.”

Growing comfortable at Louisville became easier for Harrell when basketball became apart of the equation. Although quiet in the past, Montrezl always had a tremendous motor on the court and he quickly identified with how hard his teammates worked and focused on getting better.

“It was just the kind of team that they had,” Harrell said of his decision to attend Louisville. “I look around at these guys and they all really want to work and really get better. So looking at that and looking at myself and how I’m willing to do whatever role that Coach can think of, that’s kind of the overall feel for things. The way that Coach has a passion for the game, that’s something that really helped me out as a player.”

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As the 2012-13 season progressed, Pitino noticed Harrell’s rapid improvement. By the end of the season, Harrell had a 20-point, seven-rebound performance in the Big East Tournament Championship win over Syracuse and also got minutes off the bench throughout the NCAA Tournament including a key role in wins over Colorado State and in the Final Four over Wichita State.

This season, Harrell has more expectations placed on him thanks to his postseason run and his efforts with USA Basketball this summer.

“He just grew with each week — he just kept getting better and better,” Pitino said. “And now he’s added the mid-range game, the jump shot to his game. He was very mechanical when he first came to us and he was basically a runner and a dunker. And now he’s added very good footwork to his game, he added a 16-foot jump shot to his game. He’s physically mature. He’s just added a lot to his game and gotten better week-after-week.”

The play at the end of last season got people’s attention, but Harrell’s play this summer during the U-19 World Championships in Prague has college basketball buzzing. On a loaded USA Basketball squad, Harrell started every game and averaged 10.6 points and 3.7 rebounds on 57 percent shooting to help lead the squad to the Gold Medal.

NBA people are also beginning to take notice as some have tabbed Montrezl as a potential lottery pick. Still, Harrell is only focused on the task of repeating as National Champions and this season he’ll play a much bigger role for the Cardinals in that quest for another title.

When NBA decision makers eventually go over Harrell’s pros and cons, his game may still be developing, but they’ll be able to check “winner” under the positives column.

“I’m just looking to work hard and maintain my intensity and take it to another level,” Harrell said. “Just trying to get better in every aspect of the game and just trying to do little things to make my game that much better and help my team win.”

Bill Self’s least impressive Kansas team is 40 minutes away from the Final Four

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OMAHA, Neb. — Kansas is vulnerable, exploitable and limited. The Jayhawks have no depth, are without a superstar and possess a middling defense.

They are Bill Self’s worst team.

And they have won the Big 12 regular season and tournament titles, secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and are a win away from the Final Four.

The Jayhawks shrugged off some late sluggishness to dispatch No. 5 Clemson 80-76 on Friday night in the Midwest Regional semifinal at CenturyLink Center to put themselves in the Elite Eight for the third-consecutive year with a date with Duke on Sunday.

This year has often been about what this Kansas team couldn’t do after the losses of Frank Mason and Josh Jackson and then the ineligibility of Billy Preston. Early-season losses to Washington and Arizona State, the latter at the usually impregnable Allen Fieldhouse, were the proof this Kansas team might finally be the one not to win a Big 12 title. Then Texas Tech beat the hell out of them in Lawrence and it looked like the streak was on its way to over.

Devonte Graham was a poor imitation of Mason.  Svi Mykhailiuk was too timid and inconsistent. Udoka Azubuike was foul-prone and unproven. The supporting cast was a rung or two lower than a team with national-championship aspirations could carry.

Those problems are real. Those issues are troublesome. Those deficiencies are critical.

In spite of it all, Kansas won the Big 12 by two games, ripped through the conference tournament and are on the doorstep of playing for a national championship.

Bill Self’s worst team has a chance to be the country’s best.

“I’m so proud of our team because I think of all the teams that we’ve had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game,” Self said Friday. “And so, hey, we’re in this game. We’ve got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.

“You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we’ll play with no what-ifs. I think we’ll let it go. I think we’ll be as loose as we can be and still you’ve got to make shots.

“I’d like nothing more than to take my team this year to San Antonio and let them experience what the best of the best is in college basketball.”

The key to Kansas’ season has been embracing its shortcomings. Azubuike is the only big they’ve got that can give them both scoring and defense consistently. It’s a 180 for a program that’s featured Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, the Morris Twins and Jeff Withey. Kansas almost always plays through its bigs. This year, they’re playing around one.

“I never played like this,” Self said. “It just goes against the grain from the teams that we’ve had in the past, but these guys have figured it out. They’ve learned how to play through it, and we’ve had unbelievable guard play and unbelievable leadership from our vets, and had some guys have some outstanding seasons.

“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that.”

Kansas’ shooting is why they’re in the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks are 10th nationally with a 40.5 3-point shooting percentage. It’s Azubuiike, though, that makes so many of those good looks possible. The man makes 77.5 percent of his shots from the floor. That demands defensive attention. And that means defenders aren’t shadowing shooters.

“He’s a guy we can throw the ball into and he can go get a basket,” Malik Newman, who had a team-high 17 points Friday, said. “I think his passing is underrated. That’s another big key for him. When we’re able to throw it in and the defense collapses on him, he is able to kick it out and find an open shooter.

“It just opens up the whole game for us.”

It’s opened up a whole world of possibility for Kansas and a world of hurt for their opponents.

“Most teams have somebody that you can kind of scratch off,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell mused. “So one of the reasons they’re so hard to guard is they’ve got a center that scores if he catches it deep, and he’s bigger than everybody on the floor so he does get position. And then you’ve got guards that can all make shots and drive by you and they play with great spacing.”

Now, Kansas isn’t full of slouches. Graham was the Big 12 player of the year, Azubuike’s talent was apparent even if it was raw before injury robbed him of a freshman year. Mykhailiuk is all-Big 12 while Malik Newman and LaGerald Vick were heralded prospects. Still, there’s not a lottery pick among them. No Andrew Wiggins or Ben McLemore or Josh Jackson. The fit is strange and the depth is zilch.

All that has eroded Kansas’ wiggle room for mistakes, but when they operate within their comfort zone, it can make for great offense. The first two minutes of the second half when the Jayhawks hit back-to-back 3s was a thing of beauty, ball movement and shot making. It was the blueprint for a buzzsaw.

Maybe Self’s worst team is pretty damn good.

Keenan Evans closes strong (again) as Texas Tech advances past Purdue to Elite Eight

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BOSTON — Second Half Keenan struck again on Friday night.

Keenan Evans scored 12 of his 16 points and handed out three of his four assists in the final 10 minutes of the game as No. 3-seed Texas Tech held off No. 2-seed Purdue, 78-65. Zach Smith and Justin Gray paced Tech early, combining for 26 points that helped the Red Raiders build a lead that reached as high as nine before Evans went into takeover mode. Zhaire Smith added 13 points of his own, while the Red Raiders forced 17 Purdue turnovers.

And with that, Texas Tech will to advance past the Sweet 16 for the first time since … ever.

This is uncharted territory for for the Red Raider program that has never been to an Elite Eight and will be playing for their first-ever trip to the Final Four.

“To build a program there has to be a lot of firsts so myself and Keenan have only been together for two years, so we’ve never been to the Elite Eight in two years,” Beard said. “That’s more accurate.”

It’s also fitting, really.

Because it more or less sums up what makes this Texas Tech program so interesting.

On a night where their three-leading scorers never really got going, the Red Raiders advanced on the stretch of two things: Their defense, and the fact that they can stay in a game on the nights when their best players don’t play their best.

With just over 10 minutes left in the game, when Purdue was getting ready to make one final run at advancing to the Elite Eight, is when Evans took over. And there’s no question about it: He closed out this game. Everything that the Red Raiders got on the offensive end of the floor came through Evans down the stretch, even the stuff that doesn’t show up in the score book; for example, the Red Raiders executed a pick-and-roll to perfection with three minutes left, but the lob that Evans threw to Zach Smith ended up as a missed dunk that Zhaire Smith was able to put right back in. Evans doesn’t get the assist, but he made that bucket possible.

I saw all that to say this: With 10 minutes left, the three leading scorers in the Tech program — Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver — were a combined 4-for-16 from the floor with just 11 points.

And Texas Tech held a 50-41 lead. If Evans is Texas Tech’s closer, this was a save that he earned with a three-run lead.

“It’s our identity,” Beard said. “We have a lot of faith in our whole roster, we use a lot of different guys and tonight was fitting. That is the way we have played all year.”

If that doesn’t sum up Chris Beard’s program, I don’t know what does.

No. 2 Duke goes inside to defeat No. 11 Syracuse

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OMAHA, Neb. — Second-seeded Duke made just 5 of its 26 3-point attempts against No. 11 Syracuse on Friday in the two ACC programs’ Sweet 16 matchup.

So the Blue Devils just went inside.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendel Carter, Jr. both had big games to help the Blue Devils outlast the Orange, 69-65, to put themselves in the Elite Eight on Sunday against top-seeded Kansas.

“This was a heck of a game,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought both teams played their hearts out. A great game to win, a really difficult game to lose, because Syracuse played such winning basketball.”

While Duke couldn’t beat the zone that took Syracuse from the First Four to the second weekend with its outside shooting, its two big underclassmen provided plenty of production. Bagley had 22 points and eight rebounds while Carter added 14 points and 12 boards.

“It was a hard fought game. We knew they were going to compete every second of the game,” Bagley said, “and we just tried to compete as well. We had a little point in the game where we started turning it over, and things weren’t going our way, but we stayed tough mentally and we finished it out.”

Bagley was on the receiving end of a number of lobs behind the Syracuse zone that helped the Duke offense stay out in front.

“We practiced it all week,” Bagley said. “We try to look for different things and different ways to score against that zone, and we did a great job at that and got the win.”

Tyus Battle had 19 points to lead the Orange. Oshae Brissett added 15 points and seven boards while Marek Dolezaj had 13 points.

Syracuse shot 53.8 percent from the floor in the second half while Duke shot 36.4 percent (and 11.1 percent from distance), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Orange’s 16 turnovers or Duke’s 17 second-chance points.

Grayson Allen had 15 points and eight assists for Duke. The Blue Devils had 32 points in the paint.

Duke will now turn its attention to the Jayhawks, who defeated Clemson earlier Friday to make it to their third-straight Elite Eight. The game will tipoff Sunday at 5:05 p.m. (ET).

“We just got to come out ready to play from the beginning,” Bagley said. “We were kind of slacking in this game. I think we’ll be ready for that game. Everybody’s going to be up. We should be coming out strong.”

VIDEO: Allen-to-Bagley oop beats the Syracuse zone

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Usually, you’ve got to shoot a team out of a zone.

Duke might be able to dunk Syracuse out of it.

Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley connected for a beautiful alley-oop Friday in the second half of the Blue Devils’ Sweet 16 contest against the Orange.

That will work as a zone-buster.

VIDEO: Duke slaps the floor on defense…while playing zone

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Slapping the floor on defense has its advocates and its detractors.

Some applaud the old-school, hard-nosed nature of putting hand to floor. For others, its a bit corny.

What everyone agrees on is that you don’t drop a floor slap if you’re playing zone.

Unless you’re Duke, apparently.

Presumably, the whole point of slapping the floor is to psyche yourself and intimidate your opponent with aggressive man-to-man defense. Not sit-back-and-guard-this-spot-whether-there’s-a-guy-there-or-not defense.

C’mon, Duke. You’re making it too easy for your haters.