- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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To be fair, you don't really need an introduction. You met two years ago.
You remember, right? April in Atlanta? It was the final few seconds of the Louisville Cardinals' legendary first half against Michigan -- the first half, you'll recall, that made Spike Albrecht a minor folk hero -- when Montrezl Harrell, up to his eyeballs in adrenaline, flung himself so high and so fast to catch a trailing alley-oop he drew a collective gasp from 70,000 Georgia Dome attendees. Has an arena that big ever been struck as dumb? Probably. The point is that's not the kind of dunk you forget, in a context that makes it downright impossible.
Still, some people have trouble with new faces. That was then. Harrell was an athletic engine as a freshman and a bruiser on the boards, but little else. A year later, he was a more significant piece of another 30-win Louisville team, but one that, like the rest of his teammates, mostly existed in Russ Smith's wackadoodle orbit. Harrell got better at the things he did well -- rebounding, rim finishing -- but he only needed to be so good.
Now Smith is gone. Harrell is back. And if the big question about Louisville's 2014-15 season was "Can Montrezl Harrell make the leap?" -- and it was -- consider Friday night's debut a massive answer in the affirmative.
In other words, say hello to the new Montrezl Harrell.
The big man's effort in Louisville's 81-68 Armed Forces Classic win over Minnesota didn't merely hint at his potential, it revealed it in full. After an offseason spent honing the finer parts of his game, and a fall spent racking up preseason accolades, Harrell's first basket of the season was a sweetly stroked 3-pointer from the left wing. He would hit two more on the night, one more than he made in his first two seasons combined. He would end the game with a career-high 30 points and seven rebounds on 9-of-12 shooting from the field (including 75 percent from 3) and 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. It was about as efficient an offensive performance as a player can have.
Even more impressive? Fifteen of Harrell's 30 points came on jump shots. By contrast, last season just 6.5 percent of Harrell's possessions ended in spot-ups, and just 4.2 percent of his touches resulted in isolations, according to Synergy sports data. There's a reason Louisville coach Rick Pitino didn't put Harrell in those situations often: When he wasn't cutting, grabbing offensive rebounds or posting up, he was inefficient.
In the matter of an offseason, Harrell has gone from a better version of his raw freshman self -- active, aggressive, unrefined -- to something else entirely. He's catching the ball in the high post, pivoting in tune with his cutters and calmly sinking jumpers when the defense sinks. He's lining up 3s with the ease of a guard. He's running interior pick-and-rolls with Louisville's guards at tidy, precise angles.
Speaking of the guards, the results were more mixed. On one end, Terry Rozier was nearly the player of the game in his own right: He had 18 points on 11 shots and a downright Smith-ian six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Backcourt mate Chris Jones, on the other hand, shot just 4-of-13 from the field, and Wayne Blackshear looked uncomfortable (and shot just 1-of-4) throughout.
That's one key question as Louisville moves forward: How much depth does Pitino really have? Jones will play better, but Blackshear, now a senior, has never quite made good on his long-ago high school hype. Despite scorching nights from their two stars, the Cardinals shot just 46 percent overall and turned the ball over on nearly a quarter of their possessions.
Then again, Louisville's defense was good enough to force Minnesota -- a solid but overmatched team coached well by Pitino's son, Richard -- into just .87 points per trip. That's been the real key to the Cardinals' ongoing run of 30-win seasons: long, smart, harrassing defense. That was another question about the Cardinals: Whether they could guard the same way without Smith, who coupled loads of scoring with relentless perimeter pressure. If they can, a balanced scoring diet won't be nearly as important.
In the meantime, there is Harrell. Every season, there is a big man who draws his coaches' raves. He's shooting 3s now! He's got great post moves! Much of the time, this is wishful thinking, and the player goes back to doing what he did before.
Harrell had alley-oops Friday night. Two of them, actually, and both were spectacular. But now Harrell is combining the things that made him intriguing in the first place -- the strength, the motor, the borderline hilarious athleticism -- with the actualized version of his own best-case scenario.
He's dunking and draining 3s. He's doing everything. He is wishful thinking made real. And it's high time we all got reacquainted.
Louisville Cardinals' Montrezl Harrell takes leap to next level with impressive debut to 2014-15 season