Elite forward Harrell to challenge King

Gophers junior Joey King will face a tough matchup in Puerto Rico.

Minnesota forward Joey King goes up to block a shot at the game against Indiana on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2014 at Williams Arena.

Lisa Persson

Minnesota forward Joey King goes up to block a shot at the game against Indiana on Saturday, Dec. 11, 2014 at Williams Arena.

Jack Satzinger

Last spring, Montrezl Harrell went back and forth with decisions about his future.

He could have joined the heralded 2014 NBA Draft class, where he likely would have been a first-round pick, but he turned down the shot at millions of dollars to instead play another season at Louisville under Rick Pitino. Harrell announced his decision on April 14 via Twitter.

Pitino was likely ecstatic to get the big man back for at least another season.

But Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino wasn’t as enthused.

That’s because now he has to find a way to stop him.

If the Gophers can’t slow Harrell down when they face Louisville on Friday night in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, it could be a rough season opener.

“I was hoping Montrezl Harrell was going pro, but he came back,” Richard Pitino said. “He’s as good as any frontcourt guy in the country.”

The Associated Press named the 6-foot-8-inch junior to its All-America first team, and he is arguably the best power forward in the nation.

Gophers junior forward Joey King has been watching videos of Harrell in preparation of guarding him Friday. Harrell set a Louisville record for dunks in a season last year, and he is a nearly unstoppable force in the paint.

“He’s relentless on the offensive glass,” King said. “I think that’s probably a big part of his game.”

Last year, Harrell ran the floor well for transition baskets, used his 240-pound frame to finish through contact and was one of the best rebounders in the country, averaging 14 points and 8.4 boards per game.

But Harrell is no longer just a physical specimen that dominates inside. Over the summer, he worked on diversifying his game and might prove to be the nation’s toughest to guard this season.

He’s a complete player who can take players off the dribble and hit outside shots, in addition to overpowering defenders in the painted area.

Going up against an elite forward like Harrell will be a tough test for King. Richard Pitino has praised King all offseason for his attention to detail and maturity on and off the floor.

Though King has done his homework and studied Harrell’s tendencies, he’ll still need plenty of help from teammates to slow him.

Redshirt senior Elliott Eliason stressed the need to get fellow center Mo Walker back in the lineup Friday to give Minnesota more depth down low.

“We need him,” Eliason said. “He’s such a physical presence down there.”

Richard Pitino said Walker will likely play after a week of being sidelined for a hamstring injury.

While the redshirt senior is a force offensively, all eyes should be on King during the nationally televised season opener on Friday.

If he can be marginally successful against Harrell, Minnesota has a chance. But if Harrell goes off, a Gophers victory will be hard to achieve.

Despite that, King isn’t backing down from the pressure.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge,” King said. “I know [Harrell’s] got his mind on the NBA Draft next year, so he’ll be wanting to put on a show.”