Note: The following originally appeared as a column in this week's edition of The Voice-Tribune
With one Tweet, Montrezl Harrell turned the 2014-15 Louisville Cardinals from a team with too many unknowns to be accurately gauged into a bona fide national championship contender that will be in everyone's preseason top 10.
When UofL's season ended three weeks ago, it seemed certain that Harrell had played his last game as a Cardinal, a level of certainty which was understandable given the way the sophomore had performed over the course of the preceding months.
Harrell thrived in his first college season under the spotlight, averaging 14.0 points and 8.4 rebounds, both up significantly from the freshman season he spent subbing in for Chane Behanan. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Harrell's season was the way he never stopped improving. He developed post moves, a reliable baby hook in the lane, better rebounding instincts and a vastly improved mid-range jump shot. The improvements enabled him to post a double-double 11 times after the calendar flipped from 2013 to 2014.
And then there were the dunks. The violent, beautiful, abounding dunks. After breaking the previous UofL single-season dunks record of 59, Harrell was asked how many he though he could finish with before the end of the year. His response of "100" elicited laughter from the reporters surrounding him as well as a look of disbelief from teammate Chris Jones. Harrell proceeded to finish the season with 98 dunks.
Many Louisville fans felt conflicted about seeing Connecticut cut down the nets on the first Monday of April. On one hand, there was a bit of pride in knowing your team had defeated the national champions handily on three separate occasions (beating Kentucky also helped). On the other, the dominance over the Huskies also reinforced the bitter feeling that UofL's season had come to an end 10 days sooner than it should have.
It was a mixture of emotions that likely hit Harrell harder than anyone. After all, he had dominated the Huskies as thoroughly as any individual in recent memory. Harrell was unstoppable in his three games against the eventual national champions, averaging 20.0 points and 11.5 rebounds. He was 25-for-39 from the field in those games and blocked a total of seven shots. All this being the case, it's little wonder that Harrell's decision is being viewed as the most surprising of the 2014 offseason thus far.
So why is a guy who has already won a national title and who seemed to be on the verge of getting paid to play a game (regardless of where he wound up being drafted) coming back to play another season of college basketball? I think the primary answer to that question lies in the tweet Harrell sent out revealing his decision.
"Been on my mind heavy but I love the feeling of being a Louisville Cardinal [and] I will be wearing this for the next year," Harrell said in a Tweet that included a picture of himself in a red UofL jersey.
It's a sentiment very similar to the one expressed by Russ Smith, who made the same decision almost exactly one year ago. The first words out of Smith's mouth when asked about the choice to come back to Louisville were: "I really realized how much I love playing with my teammates."
It's hard to leave anything special when you know you don't have to, and what has been happening with the Cardinal basketball program over the last four or five years has been unquestionably special. The excitement, the likability of the players, the winning - it's all been an insane amount of fun to follow, and I'm sure an even more insane amount of fun to be a part of.
I can't imagine a more enjoyable situation for a college athlete than being a basketball player at the University of Louisville. This is a pro sports city without a pro sports team, but with a college sports obsession. As a result, if you're a member of the UofL basketball team, you're instantly one of the biggest celebrities in a pretty sizable city. Sure, there's pressure that comes with that, but not the same level of pressure that comes with, say, playing for the New York Knicks.
It's an admittedly biased view, but I also think the fans play a large role in the inherent joy of being a Cardinal. There are high expectations, but there's also a guaranteed level of love that will be shown so long as the player consistently showcases an equally high level of effort. Is it a role more attractive than the prospect of the guaranteed millions which come with being a lottery pick? Of course not. But when a player's draft outlook is a bit more ambiguous than that, it's not that hard to fathom why they'd choose to spend 12 more months as a Cardinal.
"The feeling of being a Louisville Cardinal" led Montrezl Harrell back to the Derby City for another season, and as a result, UofL fans can spend the summer feeling like they have yet another title contender to be excited about.