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Montrezl Harrell's return makes Louisville a national contender again

Montrezl HarrellMontrezl Harrell became a sensation in part thanks to his shot-blocking and his big dunks.  (Andy Lyons/Getty)

Whoever created the artwork that accompanied Montrezl Harrell's Twitter announcement regarding his NBA future did a very nice job. The most important touch for the college basketball landscape, though, was that the portrait featured Harrell pounding his right fist against a Louisville jersey, a uniform the sophomore forward declared he'd wear for one more year. With a keyboard stroke, Harrell enhanced the chances that those same duds would appear during a championship celebration in Indianapolis next April.

That is of course far from guaranteed. But one of the most unexpected draft decisions this offseason altered everyone's expectations for the next season. Harrell, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward, was on an upward trajectory already, after averaging 14 points and 8.4 rebounds with 49 blocked shots as a sophomore, while ranking sixth nationally in field goal percentage (60.9 percent). He will be on everyone's preseason All-American lists and Louisville will be in everyone's preseason top 10 rankings, a program now turbo-boosted into its first season in the ACC.

"This is obviously great news," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said in a statement, and it was a massive understatement.

Harrell has the frame and the potential to warrant a first-round selection. But he'll also have a much grander stage as a junior in the ACC, and he'll have the team mostly to himself, after playing off lodestar guard Russ Smith in 2013-14. It's hard to argue with anyone who chases after the guarantees and security afforded by first-round selections, but beyond the obvious injury concern, it's also hard to argue against Harrell believing that he had a chance to do even better in the 2015 draft.

Meanwhile, Louisville has an enviable core returning and reinforcements on the way. There is Harrell, who was already a co-captain as a sophomore. There is senior-to-be Chris Jones (10.2 points per game last season), and there is forward Wayne Blackshear, named a captain already on Monday. And the Cardinals will welcome four top 100 recruits and what is the No. 7 recruiting class in the country, per Rivals.com. Especially with point guard recruit Quentin Snider and small forward Shaqquan Aaron, Pitino should again benefit from a roster with considerable depth of talent.

But most importantly, Louisville has its identity thanks for Harrell's decision. No one can know if the Cardinals can make a run at a second Final Four and second national title in three seasons. But their chances just got much, much better.

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