RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Anthony ''Cat'' Barber has carried a heavy load for North Carolina State all season.
The Atlantic Coast Conference's leading scorer has run the point and played nearly every minute for a team with little depth while posting numbers worthy of consideration for league player of the year. But the team's struggles have overshadowed that success entering Saturday's regular-season finale at Notre Dame.
''For me individually, I think I'm playing well,'' Barber said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''But you know, it's also better to get the wins and make sure your team is playing up to tempo. It's been kind of hard and frustrating right now because we're not winning games, and winning is the most important thing on that end.''
The slender 6-foot-2 native of Newport News, Virginia, averages 23.2 points - a full basket more than second-place Grayson Allen of Duke - and ranks eighth nationally. He also ranks among national leaders in minutes per game (38.6, second), free throws made (222, third) and free throws attempted (256, fourth) through Wednesday's games. And his 86.7 percent shooting at the line is first nationally among players with at least 200 attempts, according to STATS.
Barber is one of four players in Division I averaging at least 23 points, four rebounds and four assists, joining Wyoming's Josh Adams, Oakland's Kahlil Felder and Davidson's Jack Gibbs.
But North Carolina State (15-15, 5-12) is flirting with its first losing season in five years under Gottfried after four straight NCAA Tournament trips. That has left Barber to log long minutes while being the focus of every opposing defense.
He faced high expectations after sparking the Wolfpack's late-season surge to last year's NCAA Sweet 16. His burden got heavier when West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson - projected to be Barber's backcourt wingman and second ballhandler - suffered a serious opening-night ankle injury that has sidelined him ever since.
''Not saying the guys on my team right now can't create their own shot, but I'm probably the only reliable one that can really create my own shot with the dribble,'' Barber said. ''So that's tough doing that, trying to do that every night, every game.''
North Carolina State has relied on Barber to make nearly every big play all year. He's at his best attacking off the dribble and getting to the line, where he's shot nearly as many free throws this year as he did in his previous two seasons combined.
He's gone from taking 9.4 shots per game last year to 16.9 this year, accounting for 28 percent of the team's attempts. He's done most of his damage outside the paint with a steady midrange and pullup jumper while shooting 43 percent from the field, though he'll need to improve on his serviceable 3-point shooting range (35 percent on 3.4 attempts per game) at the next level.
Barber said he'll decide after the season whether to enter the NBA draft. Draft sites DraftExpress.com and NBADraft.net have him as a second-round pick.
ESPN analyst Jay Williams, a former Duke and NBA player, said Barber's ability to change speeds and get to the rim stands out.
''They haven't had the year they're expected to have, but they're nowhere close to winning the amount of games they've won without Cat Barber,'' Williams said Friday. ''When you think about valuable players, you remove Cat Barber from that team, that's a team that struggles to win a game in the ACC. And I think that's how (important) he is.''
Barber would have to overcome more than frontrunners Malcolm Brogdon of Virginia and Brice Johnson of North Carolina to be named the ACC's top player. Only two players in 62 seasons have earned the honor from an ACC team with a losing record: Virginia Tech's Erick Green in 2013 and Maryland's Len Bias in 1986.
''I think with Cat's situation, I hope people understand who he's playing with,'' Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried said. ''We're young, we're inexperienced. It's not his fault. He's doing everything he can. . I hope that's not something that's held against him.''
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Durham, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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