When Louisville was bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 a little less than 12 months ago, it seemed certain that Montrezl Harrell had played his last game as a Cardinal. The level of assuredness was understandable given the way Harrell had played through two seasons, one which had seen him emerge as a key contributor on a national championship squad, and another where he had evolved into one of the game's brighter stars, shattering every U of L dunk record in the process.
Harrell thrived during his first spotlight college season of 2013-14, averaging 14.0 points and 8.4 rebounds, both up significantly from the freshman season he spent subbing in for Chane Behanan. 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 carry the Cards to their third straight conference tournament championship.
And then there were the dunks. The violent, beautiful, abounding dunks. After breaking the previous U of L 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 couple of looks of disbelief from teammates within earshot. Harrell proceeded to finish the season with 98 dunks, the only total that sits above the 63 shots he's crammed so far this season.
Many Louisville fans felt conflicted about seeing Connecticut cut down the nets on the first Monday of last April. On one hand, there was a bit of pride in knowing your team had defeated the national champions handily on three separate occasions. On the other, the dominance over the Huskies also reinforced the bitter feeling that U of L'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 to return to Louisville last spring was the most shocking of any during college basketball's offseason.
So why did a guy who had 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) return for one more season of amateur basketball? The primary answer to that question might lie 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 U of L jersey.
It's a sentiment very similar to the one expressed by Russ Smith, who made the same decision almost exactly one year prior to Harrell's. 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." As recently as yesterday, Smith reiterated his love for U of L and his time playing for Rick Pitino.
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.
During this "era of good feelings," it's been difficult to 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 U of L 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.
There's been a lot of talk in recent months about what it does and doesn't mean to be a "Louisville man." Overlooked in the discussion of how a Louisville man plays and what a Louisville man does off the court might be the most important attribute of all: recognizing, appreciating, and being proud of everything that goes into having the privilege of wearing a Cardinal uniform with your name on the back.
We should remember the improvements he made, the accomplishments he was a part of, and yes, we should remember the dunks, but perhaps above all else, we should remember how "the feeling of being a Louisville Cardinal" gave us all another year of watching Montrezl Harrell play basketball for our team. As we enter the heart of March, there's also a chance it could give us even more.