LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- They say for a man with a hammer, every solution is a nail.
University of Louisville sophomore Montrezl Harrell has a hammer. And every solution is a dunk.
One-hand, two-hand, in transition, alley oop, windmill, reverse. For Harrell, it is a labor of lob. And he knows something about working. You have to know, when you come from Tarboro, N.C., the tiny county seat of North Carolina's Edgcombe County in the state's Inner Banks region.
"It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from there," said ESPN's Seth Greenberg, who signed Harrell for Virginia Tech before losing his job in 2012. ". . . If you make the wrong turn, they can't even give you directions to find the school. That's how off the beaten path it is. The school in general is so small and so few students, it's as rural as any place I've ever visited, but 'Trez had such great family support and is such a great kid."
Harrell committed to Greenberg and Virginia Tech as a junior, visiting when the Hokies beat then-No. 1 Duke. He turned to Greenberg in his office after the game and said, "Coach, I want to play for you."
And that was it. Harrell's recruitment was over. He moved on to Hargrave Military for his senior year, where he shattered a backboard with a dunk in practice, to no one's surprise. Others called, but, "No, he was loyal. He shut it down. He was great," Greenberg said. "Even when I got let go, he sent me a note, said, 'I'm sorry. I think the world of you.' We developed a great relationship. You need to know this about 'Trez -- there's nothing fake about him. He's as genuine as they come. He wasn't spoiled by the process."
There was no soft verbal from Montrezl Harrell. In fact, nothing about the 6-8, 235-pound sophomore with the 7-foot, 4-inch wingspan can be described as soft, least of all his game, which has blossomed during the second half of the season because of his dogged work in individual instruction under the eye of Cardinals coach Rick Pitino.
If one player has transformed more than any other since the first time U of L met Sweet 16 opponent Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Dec. 28, it's Harrell. He was still splitting time with Chane Behanan then, and took only two shots in the game, making them both.
Since then, Behanan was released from the team, leaving Harrell in charge as the Cards' primary post player. Their season was going to sink or soar behind him.
"I think you could say I felt that on my shoulders," Harrell said. "Chane was good for this team, he gave us another rebounder and was a very talented player. And when he was gone, it meant there were things that if I didn't do them, they weren't going to get done."
I asked teammates to describe the way Harrell plays with one word. Russ Smith: "Passionate." Wayne Blackshear: "Energized." Chris Jones: "Relentless." Luke Hancock: "Angry."
Montrezl Harrell is a Doctor of Dunk. That term, which sprang to popularity in the 1970s around Darrell Griffith and his fellow practitioners, is right at home with Harrell. His season total of 94 dunks is the most for any player in any season in school history. The previous record was 59. Several weeks ago, reporters and teammates kind of laughed when he said he'd like to reach 100. He's not far away.
"I've never had a player who, even in practice, wanted to dunk the way he dunks it," Pitino said. "Montrezl, when we're warming up, no defense, he's doing windmill dunking, backward dunking. He does it the first time he's in line. He just wants everyone to know, 'Don't even think about dunking because I'm the best.' He's got a taped wrist. You would think he'd take the day off. He wouldn't even consider it. He wants his teammates to know, 'Get out of my way or you're going to be humiliated.'"
Harrell said his practice habits sprang from discussions with his grandmother, Mamie, who always told him to practice hard. Greenberg said his high school coaches told him that Harrell played harder in practice, even, than in games.
"She gave me that drive and that work ethic," Harrell said. "And my father. My family. I just try to get into practice and work as hard as I can. And lately I've been trying to do that in multiple areas. The harder it is for the defense to stop me, the harder it is for them to stop the team. All the moves coach has given me in the post, and then after practice, just shooting those jump shots from 15 feet and out. I have a decent shot, I just don't have the reps, and the balance, so that's what I'm working on, to get comfortable doing that. I saw what Gorgui (Dieng) gave us when he could make jump shots, and I'm trying to develop that."
Harrell plays with emotion that is raw and, Pitino might say, at times, over the top. He was dominating a game at Memphis, but Pitino blamed he and his teammates celebrating for turning a game that was in hand into a loss. Harrell apologized if he was celebrating, but said, "I'm an emotional player. I bring energy. I'm sorry if you see it as celebrating. I'm going to play the way I play."
Last season, Pitino was critical of Harrell at times for not seeing that his game needed more elements. He needed to do more than dunk. This season, Harrell has embraced that message.
He has notched a double-double in 11 of his past 21 games. Over his past 10 games, he's averaged 17.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per game and shot 60 percent from the field. In the first two games of this NCAA Tournament, he became the first U of L player since Pervis Ellison in the 1986 Final Four to post consecutive double-doubles. For the season as a whole, Harrell ranks seventh in the NCAA in field goal percentage (60.5 percent).
"Like Gorgui Dieng, he came in a great athlete, a great runner and dunker with very few skills and fundamentals, wasn't a very good passer, wasn't a very good ball handler, didn't shoot the ball real well, and he's really improved in all those areas," Pitino said. "He's a very good passer. He's a very smart basketball player, picks up scouting reports quickly, makes good plays. He didn't have a good game (against Manhattan), but like Russ, made big plays in the final minutes of the game. You know, like I tell him, he was getting beaten up in the low post by Manhattan's players, and I told him, son, if you have pro aspirations, you better be able to guard those Manhattan Jaspers, and he got the message late in the game."
Greenberg praised the job that Pitino has done with Harrell. He said he knew Harrell would become a great player in the hands of the right coach, because he wanted it so much. Harrell did play football for three years in high school, and Greenberg said his dedication would've made him a great tight end or defensive end, but his basketball talent gives him even more upside.
"I would always tell him, when you're playing offense and rebounding on offense it's like you're playing downhill, and when you're on defense it's like you're playing uphill," Greenberg said. "But he's changed that, and Rick has done a great job with him. . . . He was a hard player to get to (geographically).
"I didn't see him in AAU. I saw him with his high school team his junior year. He'd just kind of swoop in, he didn't know what a good shot was, what a bad shot was. He had that little funky release, but he had great hands, could rebound. He was pure, like Ivory soap. He was 100 percent pure, you had a chance to shape him to be who you wanted him to be. He was very special. He's a pleaser. He wants to please, wants to do what's right. He's going to embrace his role. He's not going to fight you on his role. What Rick has done a great job with has been saying, this is your role, but if you can add this, you can expand your role."
And now, Harrell's role is expanding more. Whether he'll be able to do it against a taller UK lineup, he has become a facilitator in U of L's offense. And he's one of the more upset players when perimeter players break out of the offense to improvise. He demands the respect of his teammates, and they'd do well to give it to him. Good things generally happen when he gets the ball in position to go to the basket.
His NBA stock has climbed. He has moved into the first round of most NBA mock drafts and could move higher, which means that the chance to play against Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and UK's roster of expected NBA selections is his most important individual opportunity of the season, in addition to a big game for the team. Reports surfaced this week that he's expected to try the NBA Draft, but he still has some work to do before that becomes a reality.
He's in contact with home, every day. He said his father is the first person he is in contact with after games and that he talks with his grandmother every day, "just to check in, just for that reminder of home and where I came from."
Last week, before the Cardinals' first NCAA Tournament game, in the public shootaround in Orlando's Amway Center, the Cardinals came onto the court and were doing their usual jump-shooting and layups, then broke into a full-court drill. A small group of boys dressed in Florida warm-ups was sitting off to the side of the court, yelling at the players by name, only half-heckling and half asking for items, pleading with players to dunk.
"Russ, man, slam it!"
"Luuuuuuuke! Throw one down."
The Louisville players paid no mind. Hancock even exploded into the lane as if he were going in to dunk it, then laid it in.
Montrezl Harrell got the ball and heard the kids. Harrell is a little different, and not just because his father scrawled that silent "L" at the end of his first name, so his son would stand out. Harrell heard them and he launched, up, arm outstretched, now whipping toward the rim, the ball thundering through. The kids approved, thoroughly impressed. Cheered. Harrell, his back to them, allowed for a small smile.
Happiness is a dunk. Harrell has been pretty happy lately.