After slow start, UNC frosh Barnes is quickly catching up to his billing
Late-game heroics at Miami have catapulted Harrison Barnes to a higher level
Teammate John Henson on Barnes: "Now, it's gonna be scary what he can do"
Barnes hits center stage Wednesday at Duke, a school he strongly considered
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It began as soon as Harrison Barnes stepped to the free-throw line with just under six minutes remaining on a warm night in South Florida with unranked North Carolina trailing Miami by a point. In truth, it had begun as far back as late November. He had already heard it from Champaign to Charlottesville, and now, as he the stood at the line, Barnes, the first freshman ever voted preseason first-team All-America by The Associated Press, was hearing it again:
It was a chant that had once sounded like wishful -- if not delusional -- thinking from hostile crowds, but now it echoed as more like a statement of fact. At that moment on Jan. 26, Barnes had scored all of six points on 2-for-9 shooting. Later, he would admit that he had heard the chants, but if they bothered him he didn't show it. His face remained the same expressionless mask he always wears on the court. It wasn't until just over a minute remained that Barnes provided his emphatic rebuttal. With the Tar Heels down two and 1:20 to play, Barnes took a pass on the left wing, dribbled twice to his left, stepped back to create space from his defender and buried an 18-foot jumper to tie the game at 71. After a defensive stop and a timeout, the Tar Heels had the ball with 14.3 seconds left and seven ticks on the shot clock. This time, Barnes floated toward the right corner, caught a pass from Kendall Marshall, and in one motion rose and drilled a three-pointer with the shot clock expiring, eventually giving North Carolina a 74-71 win. He gave no visible reaction, but as he retreated down court, his visage seemed to tighten into a wordless gesture that read: Take that.
In the three games since, Barnes has played like the All-America he was projected to be. Before his game-tying jumper against Miami, he was shooting 36.7 percent from the field, 30.6 percent from three-point range and averaging just 11.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and more than two turnovers per game. Beginning with that decisive basket, Barnes has shot 58.3 percent from the field and 47.6 percent from three, and in his three subsequent games has averaged 22.7 points and 7.3 rebounds while committing just two turnovers total. His timing couldn't be better: On Wednesday night, Barnes will lead his rejuvenated Tar Heels, who have overcome a 4-3 start to go 13-2 since, into Cameron Indoor Stadium to face No. 5 Duke with first place in the ACC at stake.
It is yet another stage on which Barnes can show that his numbers are starting to catch up to his belief in his own abilities. "Confidence has never been a problem for me," he said. "I was never that concerned because I always knew what I could do."
Barnes is too polite to ever be considered cocky, but he knows how good he is. On a visit to ESPN's Bristol, Conn., campus last September with some of the other top players in the class of 2010, he requested a nickname in line with Kobe Bryant's moniker, Black Mamba. ESPN announcer Stuart Scott, a Carolina grad, thus christened Barnes the Black Falcon. But after waiting more than two months to see him start soaring, his teammates weren't sure if the Black Falcon would ever take flight. "Sometimes we wondered if he would put it together in games like he does in practice," Tar Heels junior center Tyler Zeller said.
Not that Barnes hadn't shown glimpses of his gifts. He had a stellar sequence against Kentucky on Dec. 4 that included a transition dunk, a three-pointer and a follow jam on consecutive possessions; he calmly drilled a game-tying three-pointer with 12 seconds left in UNC's eventual loss to Texas on Dec. 18; he made three field goals, including two threes, in the last three and a half minutes of a three-point win over Virginia Tech on Jan. 13; and he hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with less than six minutes to go in a win over Clemson on Jan. 18.
Said sophomore forward John Henson, "I remember saying to him [after the Miami game], 'You know, Harrison, those shots you take with five minutes left you can take with 20 minutes left, too.' The next game [against N.C. State] he scored 25 points. Our style of play and our system are very tough and sometimes it takes guys a while to learn it. Now, it's gonna be scary what he can do."
Rarely does a single game, or even a single shot, catapult a player to a higher level of performance, but there is no doubt that Barnes' late-game heroics against Miami have been the catalyst for his recent transformation. This brings to mind a higher-profile shot by another hyped UNC freshman from yesteryear: Michael Jordan has long credited his national championship-winning jumper in 1982 with convincing himself once and for all that he could become the player the world eventually fell in love with.
That is fitting because Jordan's Tar Heel ties were a major factor in helping convince Barnes to head to Chapel Hill. His full name is Harrison Bryce Jordan Barnes and his mother used to tape His Airness' games for her son's later dissection. As Barnes exploded onto the national scene during his high school career in Ames, Iowa, Carolina was a late arrival in the sweepstakes for his services. But on an official visit early in his senior year, Barnes fell hard for the Heels. On the same weekend that the previous year's Tar Heels received their national championship rings and got what Barnes later characterized in an online diary as "rock star" treatment, a roll call of famous Tar Heels from the professional ranks were descending on Chapel Hill for an Alumni Game that featured no fewer than a dozen NBA players. Though he didn't participate in the game, Jordan's mere presence at the festivities and the hero's welcome he received at halftime did not go unnoticed by Barnes. Nor did the giant replica NBA draft board featuring the names of the 39 players to date who had been taken in the first round of the draft that Barnes was seen staring at in the Carolina Basketball Museum.
He didn't make it official for another two months, finally announcing his choice in a unique way that only accelerated his hype machine. In a display that has already become infamous in the I'll-wear-this-hat-whoops-I-mean-this-hat circus show that is nationally televised college selections, Barnes Skyped coach Roy Williams to tell him he would be a Tar Heel.