Coming into this season, North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes was widely regarded as one of the best freshmen in the country. The Tar Heels had dealt with a mediocre season between their national title and this season, but Barnes was set to be the catalyst to their ascension back to the top of the ACC. Early, Barnes went through some serious growing pains, but those growing pains lasted longer than expected. Somehow, Barnes became the player that he was supposed to be coming out of high school, and he's led UNC to an ACC Tournament Final against Duke.
Throughout the first half of the season, Barnes was the target of some seriously heavy criticism. What is all the hype about, many of us asked? In non-conference games against Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Kentucky, Barnes was average at best, though poor is probably a more accurate description of his play. Barnes didn't look like a kid who had some growing pains to go through, he looked like someone who simply would never be a star at the highest level of college basketball. He didn't appear to be a young man working on his game, but instead a player who all of us - Roy Williams included - misevaluated coming out of high school.
Fast forward to March, and Barnes is arguably more important to the Tar Heels than any other player on the roster. North Carolina looked destined for an average ACC season and a middle seed in the NCAA tournament back in December, but Barnes and Co. have completely righted the ship. The Heels have an ACC regular season title under their belt, and their game against Duke for the ACC Tournament title on Sunday is likely a playoff for a No. 1 seed in the big dance.
Barnes' 14.2 points per game average doesn't look that impressive on the surface, but when you take into account how poor he was to start the year and contrast it with how good he's been lately, it becomes very apparent that the 14.2 ppg stat is very misleading. Barnes has scored double digits in 16 of his last 17 games, and over that span, he's averaging 17.9 points per game. Since the beginning of February, which makes up a big part of this chunk of 17 games, UNC only have one loss - at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
On Saturday, when his team needed him most, Barnes came up huge. Based on how he's progressed from poor player, to average player, to very good player over the course of the season, it wouldn't be shocking if his 40 point performance in an overtime victory over Clemson was the fourth step in the evolution of Harrison Barnes: The transition from being a very good player to being a star player.
Unfortunately for Barnes, if he plays poorly on Sunday, his 40 point performance will likely be forgotten. Players at North Carolina are often measured by their performances against Duke. None of Tyler Hansborough's accomplishments would have mattered that much if he got schooled by the Blue Devils for four years. Every UNC fan remembers Danny Green's dunk over Greg Paulus like it was yesterday. It's just how this rivalry works.
I used the term ‘unfortunate,' but in this case, is it really? I think I might have been reaching, though it's not like we'll ever know. I'm sure if you asked Harrison Barnes if he thought it was fair that his success as a North Carolina player will be measured by his performances against Duke, he would tell you that he wouldn't have it any other way.