Montrezl Harrell

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.”

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s American Athletic Conference Preview)

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.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

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.”

Player of the Week: J.J. Frazier, Georgia

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 21:  J.J. Frazier #30 of the Georgia Bulldogs drives toward the basket as Yuta Watanabe #12 of the George Washington Colonials defends during the CBE Hall of Fame Classic game at the Sprint Center on November 21, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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J.J. Frazier deserves more credit and more attention than he has gotten this season, and there’s no better time to give it to him than this week.

In two games — two wins that keep Georgia’s minuscule hopes of getting an at-large bid alive — Frazier averaged 28.5 points and 4.5 assists, leading the Bulldogs to wins at Alabama and over LSU at home despite the fact that they are playing without Yante Maten, who sprained his knee in last Saturday’s game against Kentucky.

Frazier, by the way, had 36 points in that game against the Wildcats.

All told, he’s gone for at least 28 points in four of his last five games and has spent the better part of February as arguably the best guard in the SEC. Yes, that includes Malik Monk.

The unfortunate part of this is that the J.J. Frazier takeover happened too late. The Bulldogs are likely going to end up on the wrong side of the bubble because they have six losses in league play by six points or less or in overtime. They lost at Florida in OT. They lost at Kentucky in OT. They lost to Kentucky at home by five. They lost to South Carolina twice by a combined eight points. They lost at Texas A&M because the clock stopped running on the final possession, meaning that they didn’t get their final shot off in time despite the fact that there were 5.6 seconds listed on the clock when the shot was taken.

It’s been brutal.

The least we can do is give the kid his shine.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Takeaways | Top 25

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: Adebayo is starting to play his best basketball of the season. It started with a 22-point, 15-rebound performance in a win at Missouri on That was followed up by the 18 points and 15 boards he put on Florida, damn-near finishing with a first half double-double that kept Florida from being able to open a lead Kentucky couldn’t bounce-back from.
  • Eric Mika and Elijah Bryant, BYU: The best performance from a Cougar that we saw this week was the 29 points and 11 boards that Mika had when BYU won at No. 1 Gonzaga and ended their undefeated season. But Bryant, who had 14 points in that win, also went for 39 points during the week as BYU beat Portland.
  • Justin Jackson, UNC: Jackson seems to have taken control of the race for ACC Player of the Year thanks for the 21 points he scored in UNC’s emphatic win over Louisville on Wednesday. He followed that up with 23 points in a win at Pitt.
  • Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris had 23 points and six assists in an overtime win at Texas Tech on Monday night, following that up with 17 points and seven assists as the Cyclones picked off No. 9 Baylor in Hilton Coliseum on Saturday. They’ve now won five straight games.
  • Bruce Brown, Miami: The Hurricanes scored 109 total points in wins at Virginia  (in overtime!) and over Duke at home this week, and Brown had 39 of them, scoring a team-high 14 points against the Wahoos before popping off for 25 against the Blue Devils.

College Basketball Talk Top 25: Kansas, North Carolina vault past Gonzaga, Villanova

AUSTIN, TX - FEBRUARY 25: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives around Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns at the Frank Erwin Center on February 25, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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With Gonzaga taking their first loss of the season on Saturday night, it’s time for a reshuffle at the top of the top 25 standings.

We went with Kansas in the top spot, although I’m not sure if they’re actually the best team in the country.

I think North Carolina may be more complete, and while the Jayhawks have some serious front court depth concerns, if you were to give me the choice of a top seven vs. top seven, I would probably pick Kansas.

Anyway, here is the rest of this week’s top 25:

1. Kansas (26-3, Last Week: No. 3)
2. North Carolina (25-5, 6)
3. Gonzaga (29-1, 1)
4. Villanova (27-3, 2)
5. Oregon (26-4, 5)
6. UCLA (26-3, 8)
7. Louisville (23-6, 4)
8. Arizona (26-4, 7)
9. Kentucky (24-5, 11)
10. West Virginia (23-6, 10)
11. Baylor (23-6, 9)
12. Butler (23-6, 24)
13. Duke (22-7, 12)
14. Florida (23-6, 14)
15. SMU (25-4, 17)
16. Purdue (23-6, 13)
17. Notre Dame (22-7, 18)
18. Saint Mary’s (26-3, 19)
19. Florida State (23-6, 20)
20. Iowa State (19-9, 21)
21. Cincinnati (25-4, 16)
22. Wisconsin (22-7, 15)
23. Wichita State (27-4, 25)
24. Oklahoma State (20-9, UR)
25. Miami (20-9, UR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 22 Virginia, No. 23 Northwester
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Oklahoma State, No. 25 Miami

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Takeaways | Top 25

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Before he won an Academy Award, Mahershala Ali played at Saint Mary’s

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  Actor Mahershala Ali accepts Best Supporting Actor for 'Moonlight' onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in the film ‘Moonlight’ on Sunday night.

How does that tie into college basketball?

It’s simple: Ali played college basketball for four years at Saint Mary’s, from 1992-1996.

Now, this was before Saint Mary’s turned into the Saint Mary’s that Randy Bennett has built. At the time, Ernie Kent was the program’s head coach, and the teams that Ali — whose used his given last name of Gilmore at the time, although he was already using the shortened version of his first name, Mahershalalhashbaz — played on weren’t really all that good. They finished under .500 in the WCC three of the four season, finding a way to finish in a tie for second place in his junior year.

As a senior, Ali averaged 7.0 points for the Gaels.

This would probably make Ali the most famous player that Kent has ever coached. He’s more famous than Aaron Brooks, who had about two good NBA seasons, and he’s definitely more famous than Luke Ridnour, who is best known either for getting traded four times in a week or being name-dropped in a song by the rapper Wale, who bragged about being able to turn ‘Ducks into Bucks [like] Luke Ridnour.’

 

VIDEO: Tom Izzo’s touching senior day tribute to Eron Harris

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Eron Harris #14 of the Michigan State Spartans kisses the midcourt logo on senior day during the second half of the college basketball game against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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Eron Harris suffered a career-ending knee injury in a game at Purdue earlier this month, meaning that he would not be able to take the floor for his Senior Day.

Tom Izzo made sure to rectify that, as he called a timeout with just 12 seconds left in Michigan State’s win over No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday, giving Harris a chance to go out to the center of the court, get a standing ovation and give the Spartan logo a smooch.

He was also greeted by the Wisconsin team. All around great moment:

Nick Ward-led Michigan State beats No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Nick Ward #44 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates during a game against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second half at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Nick Ward had 22 points and nine rebounds, Miles Bridges had 17 points and Matt McQuaid added a season-high 15 to help Michigan State beat No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74 on Sunday.

The Spartans (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten) have won six of their last eight games, moving them into a third-place tie in the conference and perhaps sealing their spot in a 20th straight NCAA Tournament.

The Badgers (22-7, 11-5) have lost four of five and lost a chance to pull into a first-place tie with No. 14 Purdue.

Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes scored 22 points, Bronson Koenig had 17 and Zak Showalter added 15. Ethan Happ fouled out with eight points, more than six points below his average for the Badgers.

Michigan State went on an 11-1 run midway through the second half, building a 12-point lead that it was able to maintain unlike a big lead in the first half.

In the first half, the Spartans led 36-23 only to allow the Badgers to come back with a 15-4 run to pull within a point at halftime.

Michigan State’s Cassius Winston had 10 points and eight assists and Joshua Langford had nine points.

In the last game of the season at Breslin Center, senior guard Eron Harris checked in late in the game a little more than a week after he had a season-ending knee injury. Harris, with a brace on his right knee, went to center court and kissed the Spartan logo to follow a senior tradition Shawn Respert started in 1995.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been shooting poorly and it is catching up with them. They were held to 43.1 percent shooting against Michigan State, a ninth straight game of connecting on 44 percent or fewer of their shots. They made 13 of 25 free throws at Michigan State after shooting 67 and 57 percent from the line the previous two games.

Michigan State: The Spartans are surging at the right time and are gaining confidence perhaps allowing them to position themselves for better seeding at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

POLL IMPLICATONS

With Wisconsin’s losses at Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers will likely plummet from No. 16 in The Associated Press poll on Monday.

UP NEXT

Wisconsin: The Badgers end the regular season at home, hosting Iowa on Thursday night and Minnesota on Sunday.

Michigan State: The Spartans close on the road, playing Illinois on Wednesday night and No. 24 Maryland on Saturday.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25