Montrezl Harrell's childhood dream

An 11-year-old Montrezl Harrell, his face still warm from the mesmerizing glow of a television tuned to the 2005 NCAA national championship game, made his prediction while the confetti was falling.

Harrell had sat down with his brothers and father, Sam, to watch North Carolina defeat Illinois for coach Roy Williams' first title. He inherited his dad's love of the Tar Heels, which is why Sam Harrell didn't really think twice upon hearing his son's declaration in the celebration that followed the Heels' victory.

"He said, 'Dad, I'm going to win a national championship at Carolina one day,'" Sam Harrell recalled. The statement simply provoked a response that fittingly should have been accompanied by a condescending, yet encouraging pat on the head, "I just said, 'That would be nice if you did.'"

Montrezl, pronounced mon-TREZ, Harrell was a key reserve as a freshman who helped Louisville capture its third national title last season.

Harrell could find himself facing off against his childhood team on Sunday in the Hall of Fame Tipoff in Uncasville, Conn.

UNC has to beat Richmond and Louisvillehas to beat Fairfield -- or both teams have to lose -- in order to face each other on Sunday.

"It's going to be really sweet to play a team from my home state," Harrell said. "I'm going to go out there and play extremely hard and show them what they missed out on."

The 6-foot-8, 235-pounder has shown even more promise his second season in Louisville, which coach Rick Pitino believes could be his last. He's been thrust into the starting lineup and Pitino named him a captain along with seniors Luke Hancock and Russ Smith.

"Well, I know he's going to obviously move on after this year," Pitino said. "He's also a fierce competitor, he competes very hard every day. Luke leads with his knowledge of the game and Montrezl leads with his physical play every day."

Harrell is considered by many scouts to be the Cardinals' best NBA prospect. Some observers even project him as a first-round pick if he enters the draft after this season. Pitino said the two haven't talked specifically about turning pro after this season, although he believes it is a possibility.

"I tell him what he needs to be a good pro," Pitino said. "I don't necessarily say about leaving this year, next year. Both of us have an understanding that if he's good enough to move on, he will, but we haven't talked about it."

When asked about the NBA, Harrell said he's not worried about it right now. He said he wants the Cardinals to be in a position to compete for another national title. Besides, the attention really throws of his entire motif.

Harrell has spent most of his basketball playing career using slights -- perceived and real -- for motivation. But having his name mentioned in NBA circles and being named a captain has in no way made him feel that he's arrived.

"People who don't know my name will by the time I'm done playing," Harrell said. "That's just how I look at every game I go into."

Harrell grew up in Tarboro, N.C., a town of about 11,000 people located about 100 miles east of Chapel Hill.

Arguably the best athlete to ever come out of the town was Kelvin Bryant, who starred at running back at North Carolina from 1979-82. Bryant had an eight-year professional career split between the USFL, where he started, and the NFL, where he concluded his career with four years in Washington.

Harrell is making his case to carry the town's title as best athlete now, but he has some good competition from a high school rival.

Georgia sophomore running back Todd Gurley, like Bryant, played at Tarboro High School. Gurley started as a freshman and ranks fifth in the Southeastern Conference this season with an average of 100.6 rushing yards per game, although an ankle injury forced him to miss several games.

Harrell played football at North Edgecombe High School through his junior season. He conceded it was always a tough matchup because his school played 1A, the state's smallest classification, and Tarboro was one notch above it. His team never beat Gurley's on the gridiron.

"You see how explosive he is now, he was even more explosive in high school because he wasn't playing all these big, ranked teams like he's playing now," said Harrell, who was also recruited by NC State in football. "That was a tough game for us. Basketball? Now that was a different thing right there."

When it came to hoops, Harrell said he only lost to Tarboro once as a freshman. The rest of his three years on varsity, "we destroyed them." That included the year where the game at North Edgecombe had to be postponed.

"It was the day right before we played Tarboro, everybody was hyped," Harrell said. "We were just practicing, scrimmaging hard getting up and down. I catch a steal and was taking off [to dunk], next thing you know I saw the backboard shatter."

Harrell had elevated his game to the point where he needed better competition. He left North Edgecombe for Hargrave Military Academy to play out his senior season. His respect for Gurley remained, to the extent that while they are not particularly tight, they do keep up with each other.

"Ever since he came in as a freshman, he's been working and ever since he's got on the field and got that starting position he hasn't let up," Harrell said. "That's kind of the same way I am for basketball. We're just two guys that's from a small-town area, we're just willing to work."

Life-long Tar Heel fan Sam Harrell called it a "life-changing moment" when he first met Roy Williams on a visit his son made.

The family was disappointed when no offer came from the school, but they weren't devastated. Montrezl Harrell could still get his chance to play in the ACC by signing with Virginia Tech. When Tech coach Seth Greenburg was let go, it paved the way for Harrell to reopen his recruitment and he ended up in Louisville.

"We thought he had a chance to really be a good player," Williams said. "I can't remember the timing but I think – and I emphasize the word think – I think he wanted to make a decision a little earlier."

North Carolina has no shortage of talented power forwards, but none have a skill set quite like Harrell. He leads the Cardinals with 9.3 rebounds and is second on the team scoring 14.0 points per game. His skills on the post aren't all polished, but he's shooting 69.7 percent from the field and is known for being a finisher around the rim.

It's why Virginia coach Tony Bennett was one of the first coaches to heavily recruit him in high school.

"He was so raw and had this huge upside," Bennett said. "You're starting to see him realize his potential now and it's impressive."

Bennett served as an assistant coach on the USA Basketball U19 National Team staff and had a front-row seat in seeing Harrell's development. Harrell helped lead Team USA to a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championship this summer.

"He's improved his touch but his ability to block shots and run the floor and finish with that length and that bounce is impressive," Bennett said. "And he is fiercely competitive, I mean he's wired the right way."

Williams and the Tar Heels might find that out firsthand if they end up playing the Cardinals this weekend.