NEWARK, N.J. -- Harrison Barnes came to North Carolina with a sterling, Iowa-based reputation and a game that couldn't possibly match it.
At first, it didn't. Even now, it hasn't. But let's quickly go way back before we address the just-happened. The 6-foot-8 freshman is very likely headed for the NBA in the next few weeks. If he isn't, it will be considered a reasonable shock. Let's try to interpret what this season was about for Barnes, as it could be his only one in a Tar Heel uniform.
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He struggled early and had people questioning his ability -- when they should have been questioning writers for making him the first preseason All-American as a freshman in college basketball history -- and wondering if UNC would have another underwhelming season. In the beginning, Barnes was the reason, above all else, right or wrong, for North Carolina's allegedly middling play.
It wasn't as bad as people made it out to be. And Barnes didn't stay long in the rut he didn't build for himself. UNC played to its potential thanks to Kendall Marshall's insertion into the starting lineup, and from there, Barnes blossomed. He never became the feared player many expected him to be, but he certainly improved. There were increments, very visible ones.
The ones not seen by many, like becoming closer with teammates, learning to laugh at himself; those are what his friends pointed to after No. 2 North Carolina's 76-69 loss to No. 4 Kentucky on Sunday night in the East Regional finals.
"Beginning of the year, he was trying to get used to college sports, the speed of it, the athleticism of it," Tyler Zeller said. "We've seen him come a long way. He's gotten closer with all of us, and that's what's important."
The improvement on the floor came late in games, when he hit shots that gave his Tar Heels victories. More important than that, he discovered a vital part of playing major college basketball: talking on the court.
"I've grown," Barnes said. "Speaking, on the court, obviously, I've grown a lot there."
Barnes was given the moniker "Barnesbot" by fans for his emotionless knack to rip an opponent's heart out. Or pulling off an incredible play sans any sort of acknowledgement for the human life around him. He was all business, even when he was good. Really good. That super sturdy posture, a look-ahead, killer-eyed demeanor. All that was missing was the emotion.
Against Kentucky, Barnes found his mean streak. Very mean. He'd shown it here and there in recent weeks, but nothing like the verbal sparring match he and Wildcat DeAndre Liggins had for the majority of the second half. They stole evil looks at each other -- most frequently when the other was looking away.
"Sit your [expletive] [expletive] down," Barnes scolded Liggins at one point in the second half after Liggins picked up a foul and Kentucky coach John Calipari immediately tugged him from the game. After the vigor and intensity from the game wore off, Barnes easily praised the player who held him in check for a large portion of the game.
"DeAndre Liggins, you know, I mean, he's a good player," Barnes said. "Known for his defense, mostly, but he has an offensive game as well. Just being able to go against him, that was great."
The spirit from Barnes on Sunday night was great to see, but soon after he helped bring North Carolina back to within two, 67-65, with a personal 8-2 run, he never scored again. His emotional excursion didn't lead to his lack of production; it's just unfortunate the two never locked together for long stretches of play.
"I was trying to give my team what it needed," Barnes said. "We were short on scoring; I tried to take it upon myself to will my team to win. And, unfortunately, I came up short."
Barnes finished with 18 points in the loss. He didn't lead the team in scoring -- that was Zeller, who had 21 and joined Barnes on the East Regional All-Tournament team -- and grabbed six rebounds. Barnes forced the issue at times. He was 2-of-9 from 3-point range. He only got to the foul line twice, making two of those three shots.
His potential remains largely untapped. He's seen as a top-five pick in this year's NBA Draft. But he's just a freshman. Like Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, he wasn't asked to join his coach in front of the horde of media in the postgame press conference. Unlike Sullinger, Barnes didn't sit in the locker room and make a definitive declaration about his future.
"All I can say is, it won't be today," Barnes said.
Mild groans after responses, even if unintentional, they were there. Barnes didn't want to talk; the NCAA forces its member program to open their locker rooms, win or lose. This was Harrison Barnes, at his locker, putting on his Disappointed Face. His Angry Face was on full display for the majority of the second half. When asked to expound upon how he's a better player now than the one who dominated Iowa basketball for two years, Barnes replied, "Being more aggressive, finding your niche, knowing what works and what doesn't and capitalizing."
After the interviewers shuffled away, Barnes draped a towel over his head, bent over in his chair and cried. It wasn't sobbing -- there was hardly any movement in his body language. This personal grieving session lasted all of 30 seconds before a television reporter approached Barnes and asked him for a few questions. It was a bit callous, but standard protocol in such a setting. A minute prior, Barnes was stable and alert. When he took the towel off, tears covered his cheeks.
He thought the process was over. More questions came.
"This loss is probably equal to the loss I had my sophomore year in high school, where we could've gone to the state tournament," he said.
He didn't want to show it to strangers, but Barnes cared about this team, his play and this loss a lot. The entirety of the season and abruptness of its end grabbed him as soon as he let himself be taken away. In many ways, there's still a lot about this growing man we don't know: his true ability, his personality, all of it.
The next few weeks will determine whether his story will become more transparent at the college or professional level. Either way, it's clear: this isn't the same kid who arrived at North Carolina's practice five months ago. He's changed, mostly for the better.