CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Harrison Barnes is considered the best player on the top-ranked team in the nation. This time he’s ready for all the expectations that come with those accolades.
The confident North Carolina sophomore talks like a wily veteran — far more at ease than when big expectations dogged him before he had even played a game for the Tar Heels.
Barnes can even joke a bit about the bumpy start to his college career.
“Obviously it wasn’t to the level I wanted to play,” Barnes said in an interview with the The Associated Press. “But you just had to keep working. It was finally nice that everyone could stop asking ‘What was the problem?’ … (But ) we’re doing the same thing again this year. I keep hearing ‘What happened last year?’”
What happened last year was Barnes became the first freshman named preseason AP All-American and then stumbled out the gate. But he rebounded, eventually adjusting to the college game to lead the Tar Heels to within one game of another Final Four appearance.
Now — a preseason All-American once again — he’s stronger after adding about 15 pounds and knows he’s likely already endured the toughest times of his college career. He passed on the NBA draft despite being a likely top-10 pick, returning to a team with all five starters back and a No. 1 ranking heading into Friday’s opener against Michigan State in the Carrier Classic.
Many unchecked boxes are still lingering from last year on a to-do list for the goal-driven Barnes.
“Not a lot of goals were met, I’ll say that much,” Barnes said with a chuckle. “But it was good though, because obviously it gives me a lot of motivation for this year.”
Barnes struggled with his shot and turnovers early as he adjusted to college before taking a huge leap in mid-January. He averaged 11.8 points and shot 37 percent through the first 19 games, then averaged 19.7 points and shot 46 percent in the last 18.
That, along with Kendall Marshall’s promotion to starting point guard, changed everything for a team that looked lost after a 20-point defeat at Georgia Tech. North Carolina won 12 of 13 to chase down Duke for the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title.
Along the way, Barnes proved clutch with last-second 3-pointers to win at Miami and Florida State. He also had a freshman-record 40 points in the ACC tournament against Clemson.
“He had a transition period like every other freshman,” Blue Devils forward Ryan Kelly said. “Once he figured it out, he became a really good player. He’s somebody you have to gameplan around defensively.”
With Barnes’ stronger frame, Marshall said Barnes is doing a better job of catching the ball closer to the basket, reducing the amount of energy he expends while getting to his spots.
“It’s going to be fun to watch,” junior teammate John Henson said. “I’m going to be just like y’all waiting to see what he’s going to do next.”
Despite those gains, Barnes is also just as focused on what got away last year, from the Tar Heels’ one-sided loss to the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament championship to a close loss to Kentucky in an NCAA regional final. It’s why his team goal of chasing “every ring we can compete for” still offers plenty of motivation, not to mention he has a second list that’s far more personal and sounds like planned payback.
Barnes won’t go into specifics, saying only that it includes everything from games he didn’t play well and teams that beat UNC last year to critical comments said about him. He described the list as things “to go back and rectify because everything that’s done and everything that’s said, there’s always an action and reaction for that.”
That’s probably the closest Barnes will come to public trash talking. Articulate and thoughtful, he’s careful not to say too much or ramble off topic. Yet for someone who described himself last year as a still-developing player working diligently to improve, his matter-of-fact tone is a sign of how Barnes is all business about helping the Tar Heels win the NCAA title.
As his mother, Shirley said, “It’s just something about him. He likes to reach his goals, and he makes it happen.”
“It just makes things so much easier,” Barnes said of writing down his goals. “You can be focused on one thing and you can work toward it, but if there’s no goal in mind, then you’re working for nothing.”
And once he sets his mind to something, Barnes usually gets it done.
As a fifth- and sixth-grader, he had his own yardwork service in Ames, Iowa, to mow lawns during the summer or shovel snow during the winter. He even made his own business cards complete with his school photo to hand out around the neighborhood once he passed his mother’s test of doing a good job on his own lawn with the push mower.
His got its first client came when he decided to shovel snow from the driveway of a nearby house, then knocked on the door and asked to be paid. When he told his mother that the woman had paid him $20, she made him walk back and return the money — “I mean, I don’t know where her business savvy was,” he joked — because he hadn’t asked to do the work first.
“The uniqueness there is pretty refreshing in a lot of ways, too,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “But he has his own plan and he’s had that for several, several years.”
If that plans works, Barnes and his teammates have the chance to accomplish the top priority on his to-do list: Win a national title.
“You just know what to expect now,” Barnes said. “You know how to prepare. We’re just anxious to get the season under way, do what we need to do, keep our hats low and hopefully see all you guys in March.”
Copyright Associated Press