Harrison Barnes hasn’t taken a shot or even stepped onto the court as a college player in a real game, yet so much of North Carolina’s plan to reverse everything that went wrong last season depends on him.
With the Tar Heels coming off their worst season under Roy Williams, the 6-foot-8 freshman forward widely regarded as the nation’s No. 1 recruit is expected to lead the storied program’s resurgence.
North Carolina opens its season Friday night against defending Atlantic Sun Conference champion Lipscomb.
From his Hall of Fame coach to his new teammates, no one is trying to temper expectations for a player who became the first freshman named to The Associated Press preseason All-America team since voting began before the 1986-87 season.
In fact, while most coaches avoid comparing unproven rookies to past star players, Williams has already mentioned Barnes in the same sentence with Tyler Hansbrough - who graduated as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leading scorer and won a national championship here two seasons ago.
More specifically, Williams said Barnes has more focus than Hansbrough entering his first year. And the coach who was an assistant to Dean Smith when Michael Jordan rolled through Chapel Hill doesn’t stop there.
“He’s just got tremendous discipline, tremendous focus, tremendous desire and is willing to do those little things that make him special,” Williams said.
“Now the thing about Tyler is that he got better and better every year, and his discipline and his focus got a heck of a lot more focused and more disciplined. The intensity level got even greater. It remains to be seen if Harrison is going to continue to go, but from this point, I’ve never been around a freshman who has this kind of intensity at this stage of his freshman year.”
About the only person not talking about Barnes is, well, Barnes.
Freshmen aren’t allowed to talk to reporters until after their first regular-season game at UNC, a rule that dates back to Smith’s tenure. That leaves his teammates to talk about Barnes’ polished all-around game.
John Henson said Barnes “never ceases to amaze me” during pickup games, while fellow sophomore Leslie McDonald described Barnes as someone with “unbelievable talent” who “knows the game.” Junior 7-footer Tyler Zeller, at least, is eager for Barnes to prove himself in college even as he praises his potential.
“I’m very critical of players so it takes a lot to impress me,” Zeller said. “So coming in, it’s one of those things where, OK, he’s a great player in high school. What’s he going to do in college? … He’s come in and fit in very well, but at the same time it’s a different level and you have better athletes guarding you.”
Barnes’ arrival, along with point guard Kendall Marshall and wing guard Reggie Bullock, should help the Tar Heels address the glaring weaknesses from last year’s 17-loss season that ended with a loss in the NIT championship game. Barnes and Bullock offer outside shooting and perimeter scoring punch, while Marshall could push Larry Drew II after Drew’s uneven performance in his first year at the helm of Williams’ fast-paced attack.
That group is a big reason why North Carolina is ranked eighth in the preseason despite last year’s struggles. And the Tar Heels figure to benefit from the experience gained by Henson, a long-armed 6-10 forward who improved during the NIT run, and guard Dexter Strickland during their freshman seasons.
But after boasting a deep front line last season, the Tar Heels are thin up front. Zeller, Henson and Alabama transfer Justin Knox are the only big men after the unexpected transfer of twins David and Travis Wear following last season. Williams had hoped to play senior 3-point shooter and swingman Will Graves at the 4-spot to create matchup problems, but he dismissed Graves from the team last month for breaking team rules.
Williams has made early changes, too. He resorted to dusting off old sprinting and conditioning drills - “It’s run, run, run, run,” he said - from his time as Smith’s assistant and his early days as head coach at Kansas in an effort to make his team mentally tougher as they face fatigue.
Drew said he expected last season’s struggles were “always going to be there” this season for the players. They certainly won’t disappear for Williams, who missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since his first Kansas team was on probation.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to forget what happened last year,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to put it out of my mind, and that’s OK.”
Lipscomb went 17-13 last season and lost in the first round of the A-Sun tournament as the top seed.
Conference player of the year Adnan Hodzic, who finished second in the nation with 22.7 points per game, entered his name for the NBA draft after the season before deciding to return for his senior year.