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Louisville's Montrezl Harrell finally gets his ACC debut

The slightly undersized but scrappy power forward on the men’s basketball team wasn’t highly recruited, particularly by the ACC schools nearby. Harrell initially committed to Virginia Tech, but after Seth Greenberg was fired, he reopened his recruitment and found a home in Louisville.

The Cardinals are the new kid on the block in the conference, replacing Maryland after conference hopping from the Big East and the ACC in the last two years. It’s been a long road, but Harrell is finally in the ACC.

“Making this conference jump is really nothing new to us, but we know that coming into the ACC, that we’ve got to be ready to play,” Harrell said. “We’ve got to be ready on any given night because we know this conference is a real powerhouse conference, and on any given night you can get beat.”

Under Coach Rick Pitino, Harrell has flourished. He averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds in a breakout sophomore campaign in the 2013-14 season, providing the thunder to the lightning of now-professional point guard Russ Smith. After helping the Cardinals to the Sweet Sixteen, Harrell flirted with the NBA before returning to Louisville.

“I was thinking ... watching practice, without Montrezl Harrell, we may not win five games with this type of schedule,” Pitino said. “As you look at our schedule, and you look at how good a first team he is, consensus All?American in the preseason, it’s really important that we have him in our program. It’s euphoric to have him suiting up again this year.”

Expectations are high with Harrell’s preseason accolades and the Cardinals’ No. 8 preseason ranking.

“I really feel that this team has a chance to be special,” Harrell said. “We still have a lot of core key group of guys who have been to the Final Fours, to the National Championships, and I feel like if these guys really buy into the Louisville way that Coach P wants us to do, then we really have a chance to be special this year.”

However, Pitino is quick to pump the brakes on the optimism despite winning a national title in 2013.

“We may be as good as we were those past three years, but I just don’t know,” Pitino said. “I know our starting five is very good, but then we have six freshmen, and just don’t know what to expect from them.”

In addition to Smith, Louisville will be replacing sharpshooter Luke Hancock. Joining Harrell as leaders for this year’s team are senior forward Wayne Blackshear and sophomore guard Terry Rozier. Blackshear said he knows the ACC will be a challenge.

“You’ve got a lot of teams, Hall of Fame coaches, top prospects that go to the NBA,” he said. “You can only be excited to play against those guys and just compete. It’ll bring the best out of you and your game.”

Harrell will have the chance to get revenge with the schools that overlooked him, but he’s taking a different approach.

“I don’t take off any game because of the team that we’re playing,” Harrell said. “I’m looking to play every team and just get out there, honestly.”

sports@dailytarheel.com

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