Sky is not falling for Harrison Barnes
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The sage advice popped up on Harrison Barnes' phone, a simple quote in the form of a text message that both defined his predicament and offered a solution.
It came from the strangest of sources, akin to a Hatfield offering words of wisdom to a McCoy.
Jeff Capel, current Oklahoma basketball coach and former star at Duke, saw from across the country how the one-time friendly glare of the spotlight had turned nasty on Barnes.
Capel once was that kid, a North Carolina high school player of the year who went to the country's preeminent college program expected to star immediately.
His burden wasn't as heavy as Barnes', nor was his start quite as slow, but Capel, who as Sooners coach recruited Barnes, remembered it all well enough that he felt compelled to reach out.
Even if Barnes is a Tar Heel.
"To be a star you must follow your own path and shine your own light," Capel wrote to Barnes. "And NEVER EVER worry about darkness! THAT's when a star shines BRIGHTEST."
Armed with Capel's wisdom and his own self-assuredness, Barnes, who sits in the epicenter of the "What Is Wrong With Harrison Barnes?" maelstrom, seemed like the most sane and rational person amid the brouhaha.
His coach came out swinging Tuesday night in his defense, and around here, all anyone wants to talk about is what's ailing Barnes and the Heels.
But Barnes was relaxed and at ease when he sat down before North Carolina's practice Friday, a day before the Tar Heels host Kentucky.
Yes, he's frustrated that he's shooting just 34 percent from the floor. Of course he knows he needs to make more than eight of 25 3-pointers, and he's quite aware that the Tar Heels' 4-3 start isn't what anybody had in mind.
Barnes also isn't Chicken Little.
We win the first game and everyone's talking about a national championship, and then we lost and we're going back to the NIT or we aren't even good enough to make the NIT. The reality is, we've played seven games. We're 4-3. We have to get better.
-- North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes
"In high school, we were never judged until we were 20-0 or in the state tournament," Barnes said. "In college, it's every game. We win the first game and everyone's talking about a national championship, and then we lost and we're going back to the NIT or we aren't even good enough to make the NIT. The reality is, we've played seven games. We're 4-3. We have to get better."
Of course, the other reality is, more was expected of Barnes. Fairly or unfairly, the top-rated player in high school lugs more than books in his backpack. The basketball world has changed, and Barnes is a byproduct of the new system. He reaps the benefits and suffers the consequences of the new world order, in which high school kids can make like LeBron and announce their decisions in televised shows.
He might not have asked to be tabbed a preseason All-American, the first freshman to earn such an honor, but then again, he also chose to announce his decision to attend North Carolina via Skype.
"It's really hard for the top four or five [high school players]," Roy Williams said. "The culture nowadays pays more attention to the decision than to their careers. I have close friends who don't want to talk to me about whether we should play man-to-man or zone; they want to talk to me about recruiting. It's hard for anybody to live up to that."
Barnes' struggles are all the more intensified because some of his classmates have, in fact, lived up to the hype, including one just a quick drive down the road. Kyrie Irving is tied with Nolan Smith as the leading scorer at Duke (16.9 points per game). Jared Sullinger is second in scoring at Ohio State but leads the Buckeyes in rebounding (14.5 points, 9.3 rebounds), and Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight are carrying the load at Kentucky (20.7 points and 17.3, respectively).
If they can do it, why can't Barnes? It's not an entirely fair question. Irving is surrounded by a veteran team coming off a national championship; Sullinger has three upperclassmen to help.
Only Jones and Knight are in a remotely similar situation, but even they don't have all the pressure Barnes has.
Kentucky went to the Elite Eight last season, North Carolina to the NIT. The Wildcats won 35 games overall and 14 in their league; the Tar Heels just 20 and five.
Barnes isn't just expected to live up to the lofty demands borne out of an exemplary high school career; he's supposed to resurrect North Carolina in the process.
"It comes with the territory of being the top player in high school," Barnes said. "Am I hurt by it? Or sad? No, not at all. You have to keep going. If we win, everyone will be happy, and if we lose, all the attention will come back on me, but I accept that."
There are certainly ways Barnes can get better, and the cerebral player is well aware of them. He has relied far too heavily on his jump shot, which isn't falling, and agrees he needs to find other ways to score -- getting to the free throw line, buckets in transition, putbacks, whatever chippy plays he can execute to accumulate points.
If his confidence has been dented, it doesn't show. He admits that this is his first introduction to adversity on the court. He's never struggled before as a player (he scored 1,787 points in high school in Iowa, breaking Fred Hoiberg's record) or as part of a team (Ames High School won 53 consecutive games and two state titles with him).
But he's philosophical about it all.
"Life isn't easy," he said simply.
That thoughtfulness -- he is careful and particular in his speech, thinking before answering and always searching for the right word -- will serve him well as he weathers the ups and downs that are inevitable in a college career.
In basketball, though, Barnes' precision might be his worst enemy.
He is, by nature, a thinker. He's watched game film and studied himself over and over. If someone has another suggestion, he'll take it.
While that all sounds well and good, most players will tell you that when the game slows down, when they don't have to think and can just do, that's when they soar.
"He might overanalyze things a bit too much," Williams said. "But that's OK. At least it shows he cares. Harrison's way is to think. Tyler Hansbrough's way was to beat people up. I don't think we should judge the body of work until the work is complete."
That's a long way away. Williams insists that this team can and will get better as the season progresses (the unsaid inference being that last season's version sort of was what it was).
That includes Barnes.
As Capel's text explained, before a star can shine, it first has to be dark.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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