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.
By the time Barnes arrived in Chapel Hill, he had gone from Skype to hype. As the newly minted national high school player of the year, he had been saddled with a burden even Jordan never had to bear: saving the Tar Heels. Carolina's 2010 season disintegrated amid injuries and a lack of talent and landed UNC in the NIT. As if his preseason All-America selection weren't burdensome enough, one national writer even chose Barnes as the national player of the year before he ever donned a Carolina blue uniform.
Recruiting analysts compared him to Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady. Williams likened Barnes' work ethic to that of famously manic former Tar Heel Tyler Hansbrough. His legend, fueled by stories of his pre-dawn individual workouts in the bitter cold mornings at his high school, his smooth offensive repertoire and high basketball IQ and his MVP performances at both the McDonald's All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic, left him with nowhere to go but down when he finally arrived in Chapel Hill.
It didn't take long before Barnes was going south in more ways than one. After scoring 16 points and shooting 50 percent from the floor in his college debut, against Lipscomb, a frustrated Barnes retreated to an empty Smith Center to shoot by himself after the game. He scored 19 points in the first half of his next game, against Hofstra in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, but went scoreless in the second half. That went largely unnoticed until he shot 0-for-12 the next night, a loss to Minnesota, and followed it up by going 4-for-12 two days later in another loss, this time to Vanderbilt.
Suddenly, Barnes was looking less like the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and more like a flawed freshman struggling to adapt to a higher level. "In high school I could do whatever I wanted and I could create whatever shot I wanted," Barnes said. "And I had the ball in my hands the majority of the time. At the college level you have to play off the ball and learn how to make a move in a small amount of space with only one or two dribbles, rather than unlimited dribbles and no shot clock. The more games you play, the more you can rely on your instincts."
Indeed, Barnes' early season struggles, characterized by poor shot selection, careless turnovers and a surprising lack of explosiveness, were heightened by his overthinking. "He's reacting naturally and instinctively now and that comes from repetition in practice," Williams said. Though the coach never had a formal sit down with Barnes to discuss the attention he was getting or his slow start, at the beginning of the ACC season, Williams did remind Barnes that like Hansbrough, a four-time All-America, and Jordan, whom Williams coached as an assistant at UNC, great players have to find a way to be great. All the while, Williams prodded his prodigy to concentrate on playing a complete, all-around game as a way to take his mind off, and thus stimulate, his offense
It should be noted, too, that Barnes' emergence came about the same time he was paired in the starting lineup with a point guard who knows exactly how and where he likes to get the ball. Though he was far too diplomatic to publicly advocate for a change in the starting lineup -- Public Speaking was one of the first classes he enrolled in when he arrived on campus last summer -- Barnes was not shy about dropping cryptic quotes that suggested he preferred getting minutes alongside Marshall rather than Larry Drew II, who was the starter until mid-January but left the team a couple weeks after losing the job. "Having Kendall out there makes everyone's life a lot easier," Barnes had said after setting a new career-high for the second straight game against Boston College with 26 points. "It allows everyone to play to their abilities."
Last week, after Drew's abrupt departure, Barnes attempted to explain his often unexplainable chemistry with Marshall. "Kendall and I talk," Barnes said. "He'll say, you cross with Henson and I'll hit you here, or I'll tell him, I'm gonna go to the corner, and he'll get me the ball in just the right spot."
That is not to say that Barnes has eased up on working hard. North Carolina assistant Steve Robinson has taken to calling him Ralph Sampson. "Because I'm always working on something different," Barnes said.
Carolina fans would be overjoyed if Barnes had a career to rival that of Sampson, a three-time national player of the year for Virginia, but Barnes isn't likely to stick around long enough to earn such accolades. Despite his difficulties for much of the year and his insistence that he hasn't thought much about the NBA -- "No one's asked me about that in a long time," he said with a laugh -- he still projects as a high lottery pick and could climb back into the top five if he continues to improve.
"There's a reason why he was so highly touted," a scout with a Western Conference NBA team said. "His mechanics are good, he already has an NBA body and he's got all the little nuances, the head fakes, stepping to one side and creating space. I don't think he has NBA athleticism or quickness right now. He's limited to straight-line drives and not creativity off the dribble. He's got to learn how to read how defenders are playing him and come off screens rather than just spot up on the perimeter, but he's a pretty cerebral guy. It's an upward trend and now he's going to start living up to his [hype]."
Nothing would be finer for Carolina than for Barnes to continue that upward trend against defending national champion Duke. Though it will be the first meeting of the year for the longtime archrivals, Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski knows all about Barnes, having recruited him tirelessly before losing out to Williams and the Tar Heels. "He's a big-time player," Coach K said. "He knows he's good and he'll prepare to be good. When you have talent, knowledge, preparation, it's going to work out. He gets what he works for and he works real hard. He's always been a tireless worker."
Barnes likewise needs no introduction to the rivalry, though an update to his wardrobe is in order. When Carolina last won in Cameron, in February 2009, Barnes, then a high school junior, was on an official visit to Duke and sat behind the Blue Devils' bench in a Duke T-shirt. Barnes was asked several times leading up to Wednesday's game if watching the Devils march to the national title while Carolina landed in the NIT ever caused him to regret his decision. He denied ever wavering. "I'm here at Carolina," he said in as close as the soft-spoken freshman will ever come to an emphatic statement. "This is my school."
The fact that Duke was very nearly his school adds an extra dash of spice to a rivalry already overdosing on it. Asked what kind of reception he expects from the Cameron Crazies, Barnes flashed a decidedly devilish grin and said, "I think they'll be excited to see me."
Perhaps. But not nearly as excited as Carolina's fans, coaches and teammates, who, at long last, are finally seeing him, too.