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.”

SUNDAY’S SNACKS: No. 5 Iowa, No. 12 SMU pick up road wins

SMU guard Nic Moore (11) passes around South Florida guard Jahmal McMurray (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
AP Photo/Brian Blanco
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GAME OF THE DAY: James Madison 98, Hofstra 95 (OT)

The Dukes managed to fight back at home against Hofstra, with a Ron Curry three-pointer forcing overtime. From there Matt Brady’s team took control against a Hofstra team with little depth thanks to injuries throughout the course of the season. Curry scored a game-high 31 for the Dukes, who forced a three-way tie for third in the CAA with this win (Hofstra and Towson are also 8-4). Brian Bernardi scored 22 points and Juan’ya Green became just the fourth player in Division I history to score 1,000 points at two schools (Niagara being the other) in the loss for Hofstra.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

No. 5 Iowa 77, Illinois 65: The Fighting Illini got off to a slow start offensively, missing their first 11 two-point attempts, and they were unable to climb out of that hole against the Big Ten-leading Hawkeyes. Peter Jok scored 23 points and Jarrod Uthoff posted a double-double of 18 points and 12 boards for Iowa, which limited Illinois to 39.4 percent shooting from the field.

No. 16 Oregon 76, Utah 66: The Ducks maintained sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 with a ten-point win over the Runnin’ Utes in Eugene. The game changed in the first half when Jakob Poeltl was given his second foul, and from that point on Dana Altman’s team controlled the action. Dillon Brooks was outstanding in the win, setting new career highs in points (30) and assists (nine) while also grabbing six rebounds.

STARRED

Dillon Brooks, Oregon: 30 points, six rebounds, nine assists and two steals in the Ducks’ win over Utah.

Shake Milton, SMU: Milton shot 6-for-9 from three, scoring 22 points in the Mustangs’ 92-58 win at USF.

Ron Curry, James Madison: Curry scored 31 points and hit the game-tying three pointer late in regulation as the Dukes came back to beat Hofstra 98-95 in overtime.

Rachel Banham, Minnesota: Banham became the second woman in Division I history to score 60 points in a game, doing so in the Golden Gophers’ 112-106 double overtime win at Northwestern. Banham shot 19-for-32 from the field and 14-for-16 from the foul line.

STRUGGLED

Brandon Taylor, Utah: Taylor went scoreless in a loss at No. 16 Utah, going 0-for-4 from the field and committing four turnovers.

Nehemias Morillo, USF: Morillo scored three points on 1-for-7 shooting and committed four turnovers in the Bulls’ loss to No. 12 SMU.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

  • No. 12 SMU picked up another win, as they blew out USF 92-58 in Tampa. Shake Milton led five Mustangs in double figures with 22 points, and Nic Moore finished with 17 points and eight assists.
  • No. 17 Miami moved to 7-3 in ACC play with a 75-68 win at Georgia Tech. Sheldon McClellan scored 22 points and Davon Reed 15 for the Hurricanes, who host Pittsburgh Tuesday night.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • UConn has won each of its last three games by at least 18 points, as Sunday afternoon they handled East Carolina 85-67. Rodney Purvis and Shonn Miller scored 16 points apiece, and Daniel Hamilton chipped in with 12 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and three steals.
  • Iona remained a game behind Monmouth in the MAAC standings as they won 75-61 at Niagara. Isaiah Williams scored 21 points and Deyshonee Much 15 for the Gaels, who are 10-3 in league play.
  • Jaylen Adams’ three pointer as time expired gave St. Bonaventure a 65-62 win at home over Saint Louis. Adams scored 19 points, Marcus Posley 15 and Dion Wright 14 (along with ten boards) for the Bonnies.
  • Also in the MAAC, Marist upset Siena by the final score of 79-73 in Poughkeepsie. Brian Parker scored 24 points for the Red Foxes, who won despite Siena’s Nico Clareth scoring a career-high 26.
  • Pat Birt scored 27 points to lead Tulsa to a 77-63 win over Houston. Damyean Dotson scored 23 points for the Cougars, whose three-game win streak came to an end with the defeat.

Milton, Moore help No. 12 SMU rout South Florida 92-58

Memphis forward Dedric Lawson (1) defends as SMU guard Nic Moore (11) leaps to the basket for a shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Dallas. SMU won 80-68.  (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Shake Milton scored 22 points and Nic Moore added 17 as No. 12 SMU rebounded from its second loss of the season with a 92-58 rout of struggling South Florida on Sunday.

The Mustangs (20-2, 9-2 American Athletic Conference) shrugged off a three-point road loss to Houston by matching their season high with 14 3-pointers and shooting 60 percent overall. They never trailed, scoring the game’s first 11 points. SMU hit its last six shots before halftime and then opened the second half with an 8-0 run to build their lead to 30 points.

Jahmal McMurray led South Florida (5-20, 2-10) with 18 points.

SMU, which had lost two straight on the road, has matched the best 22-game start in school history. The Mustangs won 26 of their first 28 games before finishing 26-4 in 1955-56.

The conference leaders have topped 20 wins in three of four seasons under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, who was suspended for the first nine games of the season and will not be able to take the Mustangs to this year’s NCAA tournament because of multiple rules infractions.

Milton made 8 of 12 shots, including 6 of 9 from beyond the 3-point arc. Five of Moore’s six field goals were 3-pointers, and the senior guard finished with eight assists.

Jordan Tolbert made all five of his shots on the way 15 points and Markus Kennedy came off the bench to contribute 10 points and grab a team-high nine rebounds for SMU.

South Florida clinched its second 20-loss season in three years under coach Orlando Antigua. Jaleel Cousins scored 13 points and Angel Nunez had 12 points and nine rebounds for the Bulls, who trailed by as many as 36 points in the second half.

TIP-INS

SMU: The Mustangs improved to 2-2 following a school-best 18-0 start, stopping a two-game road skid included a nine-point setback at Temple and the three-point loss at Houston. SMU has won 27 games each of the past two seasons and its 74 wins since the start of 2013-14 are the most during a three-season span in program history.

South Florida: The Bulls haven’t beaten a ranked team since Feb. 19, 2012, when they upset No. 19 Louisville 58-51 on the road. They haven’t defeated a Top 25 opponent in the Sun Dome since a two-point win over No. 23 Seton Hall on Jan. 13, 2012. USF is 0-3 vs. ranked opponents this season, with two of the three losses to SMU. The Bulls lost to then-No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 27.

UP NEXT

SMU hosts Tulsa on Wednesday.

South Florida is at Temple on Feb. 14.