Key Players: Montrezl Harrell

The only reason Montrezl Harrell is at Louisville is because Seth Greenberg got fired. Harrell had already signed with Virginia Tech, and after Greenberg’s replacement was named, Harrell asked for – and received – a release from his letter of intent.

Eleven months later he was cutting down the nets. Now, if Louisville wants a shot at repeating, they will be relying on Harrell to make the leap.

Harrell only started three games as a freshman, and was 7th on the team in scoring (5.7 per game), so there is plenty of firepower in front of him. Russ Smith will obviously lead the Cardinals, and Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear, and Luke Hancock can all score. But for my money, Harrell is going to be the key to Louisville’s success this season. If he breaks out and has a big freshman-to-sophomore jump, then Louisville will be in a good position to win the first back-to-back titles since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

Louisville lost Gorgui Dieng to the NBA draft (21st overall pick), and Dieng did a couple of things that no one else on the roster could do. First, he was the only Cardinal in the NCAA's top 500 players in defensive rebounding %, and second, he blocked shots at twice the rate of any of his teammates.

Harrell – an athletic freak at 6-8, 235 – has the ability to take some of the slack left by Dieng’s departure. He’s an explosive leaper, with long arms, and though he can’t man the middle like Dieng, the Cardinals will still need him to board and help protect the paint. It will be a different defense this season, but Coach Pitino has to be salivating at amount of pressure his team will put on opposing offenses.

But it’s the other side of the court where Harrell will need to make the leap. Their defense will be elite regardless of Harrell’s development. Their offense, though, there they need some help.

Harrell’s game as a freshman was largely capitalizing on other player’s penetration, and being in position for a dunk when the defense rotated. He was a highlight waiting to happen. He’ll still get plenty of dunks and put-backs this season, but to improve, he needs to have a post game.

At the FIBA U-19 World Championship earlier this summer, Harrell showed the ability to step out and knock down uncontested jumpers. And he showed off some back-to-the-basket moves, most notably a drop step going over his right shoulder. That’s a good start.

His next showcase was the Adidas Nations Camp, but we weren't able to discern how much further along his game was, as Harrell collided with Joel Embiid and hyperextended his knee.

Now he has a few months to get ready for the year. For the season, if he can get his defensive rebounding rate up toward 20%, his block % closer to 9%, and most importantly, when Louisville gets into half court sets, if they can run clear outs for Harrell in the post, then look out. He could make them the team to beat.