LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Montrezl Harrell never was a magazine cover guy. He was the hard worker. The blue-collar backboard shatterer.

So when he can lay out an array of preseason magazines and look at his picture on the covers, it's a different feeling. As is this — the University of Louisville basketball team will go as far as he takes it this season, beginning tonight against Minnesota in Puerto Rico.

He's a consensus preseason All-American. At least one Las Vegas Sportsbook has him as its second choice to win NCAA player of the year.

For Harrell, who came from Tarboro, N.C., a small town of 11,000, and wasn't heavily recruited by the ACC powers at first, it's all amusing.

“It's a blessing,” he said. “It shows that my hard work is paying off. But the journey doesn't end here, the work doesn't stop with where I am at now. I am not so concerned with the individual awards. If they come, they come. I am more concerned with the Louisville awards. I want this team to be successful.”

Last spring, nobody even expected him to be in Louisville this fall. Rick Pitino expected he'd be gone. Harrell told the coach he was going to the NBA. Pitino was just waiting to set up the press conference.

“I said you're going to be a first-round draft choice,” Pitino said. “The projections are you'll be picked anywhere from 17 to the mid 20s. I told him you're physically ready. You'll have to improve your offensive game. Some of the teams told him he might spend some time in the D-league, and he didn't want to hear that.

“He texted me in the morning and said I'm going pro. I said, as soon as you're ready we'll have a press conference, but you have 20 days to make it official. Two hours later he texted me and said he was staying. I said, what happened? He said, my dad wanted me to go pro, but I wanted to make this decision myself.”

It was a monumental decision for Pitino and his U of L program. Because of it, the Cardinals are a preseason Top 10-ranked team and were picked to finish third by a vote of league media in their first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Pitino said that if Harrell had left, “with our schedule, I look at it now and wonder if we'd win five (conference) games.”

For Harrell, the past several years have been a series of transformations. The first was a decision to move from his high school to Hargrave Military Academy.

“Going to Hargrave really taught me a lot,” he said. “Living away from home, not being with my family and going to a military school. I knew the minute I stepped on that campus there was no messing up here. Honestly, I went to work there. I took it and ran with it and haven't stopped working to this day.

“My grades were not where they needed to be and the competition I was playing in high school basketball was not the best. So making the move to Hargrave helped me in basketball and helped me to become a man. You have to do the right thing there, you have to get up at 5:45, wear the uniform. It made me a better man. And we played tough competition, junior colleges and other prep schools all the time. It really prepared me for college. It was the right move for me.”

Once in college, Harrell had to learn that there was more to the game than being a great finisher around the rim. He had to learn to rebound. And more than that, he had to learn to lead. Much of that happened when he played with international players the summer before his sophomore season. He found himself getting on guys for not working as hard as he thought they should.

“I think I was quiet my freshman year,” Harrell said. “It was just an adjustment into college. But I learned from Gorgui Dieng that you can't be too quiet on the floor. I looked up to him a lot on and off the floor and learned a lot from him.”

This past summer, Harrell experienced another transformation. He worked on his jump shot and ball handling. He added perimeter shooting to his arsenal. Now he'll have to learn to balance it with what he does best — being a force in the lane and around the rim.

“I can't forget what got me to this point,” Harrell said. “But I can do more things now. I'm a high-energy guy, a high-motor guy. I don't take any plays off. Whatever puts my team in the best position to win, that's what I want to do.”

When he went back to North Carolina last month for the program's first appearance at ACC Media Day, Harrell was a center of attention. How had North Carolina let him get away? What if he'd wound up at Virginia Tech? The questions came multiple times.

“North Carolina was my dad's team when I was growing up,” Harrell said. “I watched them a lot. I have been around this ACC for a long time. . . . After what happened at Virginia Tech (the firing of coach Seth Greenberg and him receiving his release), I couldn't look back. I had to look out for what was best for Montrezl. I had anywhere from 15-20 schools where I could have went (Cincinnati, St. John's, Providence, Baylor, Connecticut, North Carolina, N.C. State, Wake Forest, Clemson). Carolina always had a stacked class coming in. I always felt like the last option for (Carolina) them and I didn't want to put myself in that situation.”

Instead, he followed former Hargrave coach Kevin Keatts to Louisville and played on a national championship team as a freshman. Now, he and Wayne Blackshear are the only two players who remain from that title team. What does he think this year holds for him?

“I would love to be Player of the Year, who wouldn't?” Harrell said. “But I would rather be holding up an ACC championship trophy or NCAA trophy at the end of the year than an MVP award. Those individual things are great and they're exciting and they would be nice but I would rather be one of those players cutting down the nets and watching that One Shining Moment video than to be Player of the Year.”

NBA Opening Night came and went, but Harrell said he has no regrets.

“I felt I wasn't ready to make that transition into the NBA,” Harrell said. “There were multiple things in my game that I needed to work on. I just felt I wasn't ready because of my game. I had a lot I needed to work on. In the NBA, they look a lot at the stat line and honestly if you look last year I shot like 46 percent. I wasn't consistent on my 15-foot jump shot, I wasn't ready so I went back to work this summer and made myself better. I am playing confident basketball right now. I don't worry about messing up because I know that I can get better if I make a mistake, I just correct it. . . . I want to make it to the NBA and stay there and I felt like I needed work on my game to do that. I want to be one of those Tim Duncan-type players, who is in the league for a number of years and is still going today.”

Pitino says Harrell's work ethic can take him there.

“He's everything you want in an All-American,” Pitino said. “I'm very proud of all the work he's done.”

Harrell enters the season with a new jump shot and a new hair style. But he's still the same guy he was back in Tarboro. When he goes back home, he always takes the same message.

“My message is look at me,” he said. “I don't come from a wealthy family that has it all. I have been though the struggles they are going through. I can honestly go home and tell the kids that I have been right where you are sitting. I have sat in the same seats at elementary schools they are sitting and it's all about opportunity. Once I got my opportunity I didn't look back.”


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