UNC's Barnes OK with criticism of slow start
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP)
Instead, the freshman touted as the savior for a storied program coming off a stumble describes himself humbly: as a still-developing player working diligently to improve. It's why he doesn't worry about criticism of the slower-than-expected start to his college career nor the scrutiny that comes with every bounce of the ball.
''It doesn't bother me at all because up until this part of my career, I've never had any adversity in basketball,'' Barnes said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''My career has just been straight up. I always played, I always got better. ... So it's just been a good test for me to grow as a basketball player and grow as a person. And I feel like had I not had this adversity, I probably wouldn't become later the player I will.''
Barnes' arrival at UNC was one of the biggest stories entering the season and still is - just not the way most expected. He signed with North Carolina over Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma, UCLA and Iowa State to cap one of the most publicized recruiting battles in years. And from his Hall of Fame coach to his new teammates, no one tried to temper expectations for a player who became the first freshman named preseason AP All-American since voting began before the 1986-87 season.
But the 6-foot-8 forward widely regarded as the nation's top recruit out of Ames, Iowa, hasn't been an unstoppable force. Rather, he's been solid but unspectacular with flashes of brilliance to tantalize fans heading into Saturday's rivalry game against North Carolina State.
''I think he's done a very good job,'' N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe said. ''I think it's been unfair, the pressure and the expectations that's been put upon him, which seems to be the trend. With our kids, the same thing: so much pressure put on these guys that if they don't have 20 points or something, they feel that they're failures.''
Barnes is second on the Tar Heels (14-5, 4-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) with 11.8 points per game, third in rebounding (5.2) and leads the team in minutes (27.2).
He's also struggled with his shot - 37 percent overall and 32 percent from 3-point range - while committing a team-high 43 turnovers. He has shot 50 percent or better just four times, including an 0-for-12 day in a loss to Minnesota in his third game. He's even heard chants of ''Overrated!'' from fans in a few road games.
Yet he's also shown a knack for coming up with big late-game shots, which has helped the Tar Heels climb back near the top of the ACC standings after a miserable 17-loss season.
''At the end of the day, you have to win games,'' Barnes said. ''That's what I'm here for.''
Barnes handles everything with the same matter-of-fact attitude and a maturity beyond his 18 years. He acknowledges having a target on his back and shrugs off criticism by saying media members are ''just doing their job.''
''There's obviously a lot of basketball left in my career regardless of this year,'' he said. ''Regardless of how this season happens, the world is not going to end. The sun will come out and life will go on. So it's one of those things you just have to look at and not just ask 'Woe is me' or wish this wasn't happening, but to understand why it's happening, to learn from it and get better as a player.''
His biggest growth has come late in games. He hit the tying 3-pointer with 12.7 seconds left in a 78-76 loss to Texas in December, had three key baskets in the final 3 1/2 minutes as the Tar Heels rallied from 16 down to beat Virginia Tech and hit the go-ahead 3 with about 4:58 left in last week's win against Clemson.
Then, on Wednesday night, Barnes hit a tough stepback jumper to tie Miami with about a minute left followed by the go-ahead 3 to beat the shot clock with 6.6 seconds left in a 74-71 victory.
Before those two shots, Barnes was just 2 of 9 from the field.
''I think with each and every game, he's understanding more about what's a good shot, what's a bad shot, what kind of shot that he should take that he can make,'' UNC coach Roy Williams said. ''And his progression of being tough enough - or willing enough - to take a last shot and make it is something that's pretty impressive.''
His approach to the game impresses teammates, too.
''Everything he puts his mind to, he gets better,'' sophomore Dexter Strickland said. ''And I respect that.''
Barnes said confidently he believes he'll play better now that he's gained experience and adjusted to college. That could position the Tar Heels for a strong finish in the league along with a return to the NCAA tournament.
Regardless, just don't bother telling Barnes what he needs to do better.
''I feel like if you start letting other people dictate how you're going to play the game, you shouldn't play the game,'' Barnes said. ''That's just that simple.''