"Barton College!" he said. "I remember that like it was yesterday."
It was Nov. 5, 2010. Barnes' first exhibition game as a freshman, against a Division II opponent. He didn't look like the No. 1 player in America; in fact, he looked lost. It was the beginning of a rough adjustment period to college, in which the 6-foot-8, Iowa-bred phenom's slow start was heavily scrutinized, and writers who voted him a first-team preseason All-America were blamed, in part, for overfeeding the hype machine. I was curious how he'd critique himself, almost one year removed.
"Everything was running so fast," he said, "I was in a blur." Still, he has total recall of every shot, every turnover, because he has picked it apart so many times. "I was almost going for a triple-double on turnovers -- I had seven [points], seven [rebounds] and six [turnovers]."
The film edit of Barnes' field-goal attempts featured too many casual threes ("I settled, when I could have attacked the rim a lot more"). The edit of turnovers showed him getting easily relieved of possession on his first drive ("I wasn't getting low enough, and I let him knock me off balance a little bit"). Rather than recoiling from this footage, though, he seemed fond of it.
"It's good to see the progression," he said. "If I was still playing like this, then that would be a big problem."
Over the 37 games that followed, there was remarkable progress. Once Barnes settled in, and was playing with a point guard who facilitated scoring opportunities -- Kendall Marshall, instead of Larry Drew II, who left the team at midseason -- he went from most-worried-about freshman to most-fawned-over freshman. Whereas Barnes' main competition for 2011-12's Wooden and Naismith Awards, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, was consistent in his production throughout his freshman season, and another Player of the Year contender, Kentucky's Terrence Jones, saw his output decline, Barnes went on an upward trajectory throughout ACC play, finishing by averaging 15.9 points in league games.
I imagined he'd be pleased to contrast the Barton Barnes with the version that showed up against Clemson in the ACC tournament (his season-high, 40-point game) or in the NCAA tournament, when he had 22 points against Washington, 20 against Marquette and 18 against Kentucky. But when we switched to watching that final game tape, he largely remained a critic, eager to discuss his flaws. "You see a lot more confidence and knowledge of where I'm going to get shots," he said. "But there's so many little things I could have done better. ... Especially at the end of the game, instead of trying to shoot three after three, I should have taken it to the rim, tried to get fouled, and stop the block."
We were looking at a better version of Barnes, but he was still focused on fine-tuning, which is probably a good sign for UNC's title chances. Coach Roy Williams thinks that Barnes can be a "truly special" player this season if he scores more efficiently -- saying that the sophomore's desire to succeed is at a Tyler Hansbrough level -- but doubts that Barnes can ever meet his own expectations.
"He can't be the player that he wants to be, because he wants to be perfect," Williams said. "Nobody's going to be perfect, but he can be closer to that player. And he can be the player that other people are going to look up to, because he is so good, so focused, and he's worked so hard at it."
Barnes' obsessive basketball focus made him come off as a dry, robotic figure early last season -- "He was all business, and not nearly as relaxed as he is now," teammate John Henson said -- but he does seem to be finding a medium between his quest for perfection and his ability to act like a college student. Teammates like the version of him they see in practice now: a boisterous, constant vocal presence, enjoying himself in the weeks leading up to their debut as the nation's No. 1-ranked team and a heavy national title favorite. On Monday, he effortlessly hit threes, didn't shy away from driving the ball at celebrity practice participant (and ex-UNC player) Rasheed Wallace and whooped and hollered while running defensive drills.
Barnes will not be daunted when the Heels open with a D-II team this time -- against UNC-Pembroke on Oct. 28. He stayed in school because he wants to have a national championship legacy and wouldn't mind being an All-America along with it. That weight is still on his shoulders, but he's doing a much better job of hiding it.
The Rock: Tyler Zeller. When I asked the 7-foot senior last month if there's a clear leader of this title contender -- a la Tyler Hansbrough in 2009 -- Zeller didn't have a definitive answer. "I think I'm probably the one who is called the leader," he said, "but everyone did a fantastic job last year of stepping up in certain situations and saying things." Zeller is a cerebral player who doesn't have a dominant personality, and so Marshall is probably considered the leader-slash-pilot of the offense, while Barnes is the biggest vocal presence in practice. But it's clear they all rely on Zeller to anchor the team on both ends of the floor -- to always be in the right place on defensive rotations, take charges, serve as a giant, running target on fast breaks, and to get important baskets when the ball is fed into the post. He's the team's most efficient offensive player (a 120.1 rating on 23.6 percent of shots) and a clutch scorer.
In a controlled scrimmage situation near the end of Monday's practice, the Tar Heels' first team needed to score on the final possession to avoid running sprints. They chose to feed the ball to Zeller -- despite the fact that he was posting up on alum Rasheed Wallace, who, despite rolling into the Smith Center wearing a pair of cutoff sweatpants, was taking the workout seriously. Zeller, not intimidated, backed down Wallace with a dribble, got him leaning with a shoulder-fake, then a head-fake, and scored the winning basket. The subs -- sans Wallace -- were the ones who had to run.
Mr. Progress: John Henson. Henson said that he hopes when people watch him this season, they'll say, "That's one of the biggest three-year improvements I've seen from a player in a long time." Whereas his sophomore year was about finding his natural position -- at power forward, where he made a significant defensive impact after struggling on the perimeter as a freshman -- his junior year seems to be about solidifying himself and expanding his offensive game. Henson still looks like a skinny dude, and seeing him on the same floor as 'Sheed reminds you just how far Henson has to go, physically, to be an NBA power forward. But he has filled out to a respectable 220 pounds after another offseason of eating and training, and this should help him hold his own in 1-on-1 situations in the post.
"John doesn't get pushed around any more," said Williams. "He was significantly stronger his sophomore year from what he was as a freshman, and I really think that he's significantly stronger this year than he was as a sophomore." (Williams postulates that Henson led the country in the embarrassing stat of "dunks blocked" as a freshman, but can only remember that happening once last season, against Wake's Ty Walker.)
Henson -- who has struggled with free throws and jumpers in the past -- also hopes to show off a mid-range shot that he believes he's honed enough to "keep defenses honest." I saw proof of this when he effortlessly banked in an angled 10-footer, Tim Duncan-style, in the scrimmage, but Williams also stopped play after Henson nearly air-balled a shot from farther out on the wing.
"There's nothing wrong with John shooting the ball," Williams said to the team.
"But John, was that a good shot?" (Henson shrugs.)
"And what's a better shot?"
Williams then pointed to an unguarded Barnes in the corner, about 10 feet away. The coaches are OK with Henson shooting, just from closer in -- and as long as it's not at the expense of an open Barnes three.
X-Factor: The emergence of shooters. As a whole, Carolina was not a good three-point shooting team last season, ranking 248th in the country at 32.8 percent. It was the worst long-range team in ACC play (29.2 percent) and it just lost its most efficient option, Leslie McDonald (38.1 percent), to a knee injury. To take the next step from a good to great team, the Tar Heels need to be more proficient on the perimeter. Part of it is Barnes shooting higher than the 34.4 percent he did as a freshman, and defensive stopper Dexter Strickland developing some semblance of a shot; he attempted just 32 threes, making eight, despite being the team's starter at two-guard. What would really help, though, is if UNC had a reliable gunner off the bench -- either sophomore Reggie Bullock, who struggled with injuries last season and made just 29.6 percent of his threes despite a rep as a feared shooter; or freshman P.J. Hairston, who arrived with an even bigger rep as a long-range shooter. I didn't get to see Hairston practice on Monday because he was attending a grandfather's funeral, but my sense is that he could surpass Bullock in the rotation if he proves to be a much higher-percentage marksman.
The Tar Heels aren't going to mess with the starting lineup that got them to within a couple of defensive stops of the Final Four. Kendall Marshall has the best court vision of any point guard in the country, and it more than makes up for his lack of Ty Lawson-or Ray Felton-level quickness. Strickland earns his minutes at the two by guarding the opponent's best perimeter player. Barnes could win the Wooden and Naismith Awards, and Henson and Zeller should join him in the NBA Lottery next year. Freshman power forward James Michael McAdoo is likely to be the first one off the bench to relieve whichever big picks up an early foul; he's not ready to dominate, but he would be a starter for 98 percent of D-I teams. Bullock and Hairston will battle for first-guard-off-the-pine honors, but there will still be backcourt minutes left for senior role player Justin Watts, too. Strickland will serve as the backup point guard for the eight-or-so minutes Marshall is off the floor, with freshman Stillman White as an emergency option in case of injury.
Williams doesn't see this season as being analogous to 2009, the last time he had a preseason No. 1 team at North Carolina. "In 2009, I thought we were probably at a different level than everyone else, and I don't see that this time around," he said. "There are so many big-time teams this year." But there is a difference between these Tar Heels and the rest of the field. They are more balanced than Ohio State and better on defense than Duke. Kentucky may have as many future pros, but UNC has four experienced future pros in its starting lineup, and they all stayed in Chapel Hill to chase a national championship. I don't see anyone stopping them.