Had Montrezl Harrell entered the NBA draft this June as expected, Louisville likely would have begun the season on the fringes of the preseason top 25.
Instead the 6-foot-8 forward is returning for his junior season, giving the Cardinals hope of contending in their debut season in the ACC and reaching a third Final Four in four seasons.
Harrell announced his surprising decision to stay in school on Monday via Twitter. Wrote the sophomore in a tweet that included a picture of himself in a Louisville uniform., "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."
The return of Harrell is a surprise because he likely would have been selected in the middle of the first round had he turned pro. He averaged 14.0 points and 8.4 rebounds during a breakout sophomore season and tallied double-doubles in six of his final 11 games, helping Louisville finish 31-6 and reach the Sweet 16.
Louisville's frontcourt was supposed to be a concern next season with Chane Behanan at Colorado State and Stephan Van Treese graduating, but Harrell's return solidifies that unit considerably. He and raw but promising center Mangok Mathiang would likely start, with Wayne Blackshear probably sliding down to power forward sporadically and heralded freshmen Jaylen Johnson and Chinanu Onuaku supporting that group off the bench.
The backcourt promised to be a strength for the Cardinals no matter what Harrell did. Though Russ Smith, Luke Hancock and Kevin Ware are all leaving, Louisville remains well-stocked on the perimeter with point guard Chris Jones returming, breakout candidate Terry Rozier likely to step into a starting role and four-star point guard Quentin Snider and talented wing Shaqquan Aaron set to arrive.
Making an immediate splash in the ACC still won't be easy for Louisville with Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia each poised to be strong again next season.
Nonetheless, the return of Harrell gives the Cardinals a realistic chance. Instead of starting from scratch in the frontcourt, they have an All-American candidate around which to build.
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