montrezl harrell

As Montrezl Harrell continues to emerge, is No. 11 Louisville a threat to repeat?

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source: Getty Images
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As Louisville spent the early part of the season beating up on inferior competition and booting junior starting forward Chane Behanan from the team, not many gave the Cardinals a chance to do much in March.

Louisville lost to North Carolina, Kentucky and Memphis in the early part of the season and the Cardinals didn’t beat a team that was ranked in the top 25 until its February 22nd road win over then-No. 7 Cincinnati.

But after the No. 11 Cardinals’ 81-48 thrashing of No. 19 UConn on Saturday, its time to start taking Louisville seriously as a threat to repeat as national champions. Louisville now owns a season sweep over UConn and SMU in American Athletic Conference play and a road win over Cincinnati since falling to the Bearcats at home in the earlier part of the conference slate.

RELATED: Our latest bracket projections — is your team in?

Louisville (26-5, 15-3) is a different and more focused team without Behanan around as a distraction and the play of sophomore forward Montrezl Harrell has been a big reason why. The 6-foot-8 sophomore had 21 points and 10 rebounds in the win over UConn (24-7, 12-6) on Saturday and over his last five games — four of them against ranked opponents — Harrell is averaging 21.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. To put that in perspective, Harrell is averaging 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on the season. Harrell appears to be peaking late in the season much like he did off-the-bench during Louisville’s title run last season. Only now, he’s a main option for the Cardinals with Behanan no longer on the roster and Georgi Dieng in the NBA.

(MORE: Browse through all of our conference tournament previews)

The dominant play of Harrell on the inside also eases the burden placed on Louisville’s deep and talented stable of guards. Russ Smith is averaging 18 points a game by only attempted two field goals in 30 minutes of action on Saturday and was 1-for-3 from the free throw line as he instead dished out 13 assists. Luke Hancock (16 points), Wayne Blackshear (11 points) and Chris Jones (10 points) all contributed solid, but not outstanding efforts, and the Cardinals still won by 33 over a top-20 team.

And the Cardinal defense was fantastic on Saturday, as they held UConn leading scorers Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright to a combined 14 points on 4-for-24 shooting from the field. The UConn backcourt duo usually averages just over 30 points per game.

Louisville has won nine out of 10 games entering the AAC Tournament in Memphis and as a No. 2 seed the Cardinals won’t have to potentially face the No. 5 seed Tigers in their home city. If Harrell continues to play like this, Louisville has enough talent at guard around him to make a serious run at a third consecutive Final Four.

Marcus Paige, Joel Berry lead No. 9 North Carolina past No. 2 Maryland

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — He’s back.

For the first time this season — and for the first time in more than a year that he hasn’t been hampered with some kind of foot or ankle injury — Marcus Paige donned a North Carolina jersey, and it didn’t take him long to find the form that made him the Preseason National Player of the Year.

On the first Tar Heel possession, Paige came off of a ball-screen, drove the lane and found Kennedy Meeks at the rim for a layup. Not 30 seconds later, he came off of a down screen and buried a three. Paige would finish with 20 points and five assists as No. 9 North Carolina put together a fairly resounding win over No. 2 Maryland in the Dean Dome on Tuesday night, winning 89-81.

Paige finished 7-for-12 from the floor and 4-for-5 from beyond the arc, hitting a number of threes in the second half that helped hold off a Maryland push sparked by their own all-american point guard, Melo Trimble.

Trimble was erratic early on, committing three turnovers in the first six minutes and eight on the night, but it was his play at the end of the first half and early second half that kept North Carolina from blowing their doors. At one point, Maryland was down 32-19 and in danger of getting run out of Tobacco Road.

In total, Trimble finished with 23 points and 12 assists, hitting four big threes during that stretch. He either scored or assisted on 11 of Maryland’s first 12 second half field goals.

As good as Paige was, the bigger story may actually be Joel Berry II. He took two dumb threes in the first half — which played a role in Maryland being able to make this a game — and he missed a few free throws late, but overall he was terrific. He finished with 14 points and five assists, making 3-of-5 threes and turning the ball over just twice. He’s clearly beat Nate Britt out at the point guard spot, and his ability to take pressure off of Paige as a secondary ball-handler and playmaker is huge.

(More to come from Chapel Hill…)

VIDEO: Melo Trimble drops Nate Britt with a crossover

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North Carolina is hosting No. 2 Maryland in a heated contest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Terps sophomore guard Melo Trimble is playing very well and part of his performance was dropping North Carolina’s Nate Britt with a crossover in the second half.

(H/T: The Cauldron)