Harrison Barnes began the college basketball season on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, Slam Magazine and Sports Illustrated all at the same time, but in UNC's two NCAA Tournament games this weekend, he was pretty much invisible. He's an easy target now. Everyone's got their jokes, and as a UNC fan, this is one of those days where I'd kinda like to just disappear.
But let's be clear on one point: Harrison Barnes is not LeBron.
There's a difference between the best player on earth fading to obscurity in the NBA Finals and the guy that was supposed to be the best player in America never really materializing. All we didn't see from Harrison Barnes this weekend is what we've never seen. Barnes has never been great at creating his own shot, he's never dominated games from start to finish, and he's never been the player worthy of being on three major magazine covers at once. He's spent his whole career with college basketball waiting for him to dominate. This weekend is when everyone lost patience.
We talked about this on Friday: "UNC can win without Marshall, but if the team's going to lack the balance and cohesion that got them this far, they'll need a superstar instead." Barnes wasn't that superstar, so North Carolina lost, mostly because Kendall Marshall was too hurt to play.
I'd try to explain what Marshall meant to the Tar Heels, but Jay Caspian Kang already nailed it at Grantland months ago:
For the North Carolina basketball team, the point guard is "the engine that runs Roy Williams' supercharged machine." Carolina basketball, as the metaphor goes, is a beautiful machine stocked with elegant, fast parts — the Bugatti of college basketball. And like all high-performance cars, the machine is fragile and bound to break down every once in a while.
If the Heels played a different style of basketball, in which the point guard's duty was just to walk the ball up and pass off to one of the playmakers, Roy could get away with throwing an average point guard out there with the instructions: Just don't turn the ball over. But because the Heels are all about Roy's system, and because Roy's system has never been anything but run, run, and when you're tired, run some more, the player tasked with all that running becomes the focal point of the offense. To stretch the metaphor a bit further than it should probably stretch, the point guard at Carolina is both the driver and the engine.
Or ... if Marshall wasn't the driver and the engine, he was the linchpin holding the engine together. Take him away, and Carolina's got plenty of exotic parts, but nothing to make them work together.
Some credited Kansas' zone with shutting down the Heels, and others blamed Roy Williams for getting out-coached and letting it happen, but that's just talk radio nonsense. If you want to credit Bill Self's zone, credit Ohio's defense too because the Bobcats had Carolina just as baffled on Friday night as the Jayhawks did on Sunday, triangle-and-two or not. I think we're all conditioned to read these games as "that guy outcoached this guy, and that's why this happened," but North Carolina's season and how it ended just reminds us how baffling sports can be.
For instance: John Henson got hurt early in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals against Maryland, and Carolina fans spent the next three days holding their breath, wondering whether he'd be back for the NCAA Tournament. Over that same span, James Michael McAdoo saw more playing time than he'd seen all year, and it turned a highly-recruited freshman into a weapon Carolina hadn't seen all year. Come tournament time, Henson was healthy again, and his injury had given the best front line in America one more legitimate weapon off the bench. North Carolina was better than ever.
Then Kendall Marshall's wrist happened, and all the accidental benefits of Henson's injury became accidental catastrophe connected to Marshall. The Tar Heels lost their point guard and team leader, and everyone that had been great suddenly looked clueless. Tyler Zeller was forcing things, John Henson couldn't get easy buckets, Harrison Barnes looked overwhelmed.
The engine fell apart.
This brings us back to Barnes. As we said Friday, "NBA scouts have been debating whether Barnes is worth the hype for two years now, and here's to betting this weekend and beyond will give them a definitive answer one way or the other." And it totally, totally did. Barnes wasn't the player Carolina needed because he isn't the player Carolina needed.
He needs to improve his handle, he needs to go the rim more often and finish much better than he does now, and the picture-perfect release on his jumper belies the fact that he just doesn't make it very often. In the span of 72 hours --and one Kendall Marshall injury -- he went from a player who occasionally reminded scouts of Grant Hill to a player who projects more like Kareem Rush. He's also 19 years old, so we won't belabor the point the way others have ("Harrison Barnes was terrible, and worse than terrible...").
Let's just say this: he turned down the NBA last year to come back and "build his brand." This weekend did not build his brand.
"Big-time players come through in big-time games," Barnes said afterward. "And it wasn’t there tonight.” Maybe "isn't there" works better, but that doesn't make this any easier to swallow. Especially when you see him sitting in front of his locker, his head disappearing in a towel.
What happened to Barnes is what happened to Carolina. Marshall was the linchpin to success, so it all fell apart without him -- the country's best offense went scoreless in the final eight minutes of its season-ending loss, and the would-be superstar was badly exposed in the biggest games of his life. Fate isn't always a happy ending. And even if that sounds like a Creed lyric and this is all melodramatic and ridiculous, that's totally how it felt watching a juggernaut turn desperate overnight.
Pin it on whoever you want -- Roy, the players, Barnes -- so long as you remember that it all could have ended differently with Kendall Marshall around. Maybe Carolina makes the Final Four, Barnes coasts along, and maybe he still ends up as a top five pick. Building the brand, right on schedule.
Instead, we have a great team swallowing a fracture that turned them mediocre, and a 19 year old who's always been marked for greatness forced to confront what he's not. Sports are just the worst sometimes. On the bright side? There really is "next year" for everyone involved.
And hey, at least UNC didn't lose to Lehigh!