by Matt Domino / @PuddlesofMyself

My college had a terrible basketball team (sorry Thoroughbreds), so here is the short story on why I’m a North Carolina Basketball fan.

In 1993, my father took me to the Regional Semifinals of the NCAA Tournament in East Rutherford. The first game was Cincinnati vs Virginia, a classic early ’90s matchup. When that game was over, I was ready to leave, but my dad told me there would be more basketball. So I was treated to UNC vs Arkansas. From the moment I saw those power blue uniforms, I was hooked and have been a Tar Heel fan ever since.

So, it is my great joy to see North Carolina at the top of the AP rankings for the ‘11-12 season. They bring back a stacked roster centered around Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Dexter Strickland and Kendall Marshall to combine with one of the top recruiting classes in the country featuring James McAdoo or “Not Bob McAdoo’s Son” as we’ll come to know him.

We know they’re going to be good and that they’ll have a target on their back, but I want to focus on the absolute key to this team; a player who through his up-and-down first year has become underrated—Harrison Barnes.

Barnes was the top-rated prospect of the ’10-11 NCAA freshman class. He was the first ever freshman to be voted to the Preseason All-American Team. People talked about his maturity, his calmness, his great shot and immense skill. And then he proceeded to play like an average freshman forward for the first half of the season.

The only way to describe Barnes was “blah”; that calm and coolness no longer seeming like great qualities without the promised skill. Once Kendall Marshall entered the starting lineup on February 6, 2011 the story has been sold as, “Marshall enters lineup, knows how to run team, Barnes drastically improves.” Or in other words Barnes Being Good = Kendall Marshall Being Good.

This fact may be true, as any basketball player/team relies on a heady point guard to lead them, but it has been overplayed through the offseason and preseason. And, because of this, Harrison Barnes who was once overrated, has now become somehow underrated.

In order to break this line of thinking (Barnes needs Marshall; Barnes is underrated) you need to look no further than the latter portion of the season once Marshall was inserted into the lineup. Yes, Marshall’s control of the offense triggered the Tar Heels’ success, but at the same time, the Heels relied on Barnes’ cool in the face of pressure to truly guide them.

Barnes lived up to expectations in this stretch of the season by hitting winning and/or clutch shots in games against Clemson, Maryland and Miami; setting the tone for the Tar Heels’ 81-67 dismantling of Duke in the last game of the season; and saving them from embarrassment in the ACC Tournament by keeping UNC in the game against Miami to set the stage for Zeller’s game winning shot and putting the team on his back against Clemson by scoring 40 points.

In the NCAA Tournament, it was more of the same. As the stakes were raised, Barnes seemed to crave the ball more and more. He hit big shots with confidence and calm against Washington and against Kentucky he nearly carried UNC back against an inspired opponent. As the season and the Tournament went on, Barnes developed that rare ability to relish the big shot and make it coolly. This trait made his success seem inevitable, which is the mark of any truly great player.

Barnes does follow in a line of Roy Williams era Tar Heel swingmen like Rashad McCants and Wayne Ellington who needed a great point to set them up (Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson). But Barnes is different. He does not possess the character questions that hindered McCants and he holds a leadership quality that Ellington never needed with Lawson and Hansbrough as teammates. Barnes continues a tradition, but at the same time is breaking the mold, partially out of necessity, but mainly out of skill.

Now, Barnes can improve. Yes, he can be a more aggressive penetrator as well as a savvier rebounder. But instead of merely reinforcing the same storyline that Barnes needed Marshall to succeed, can’t we instead say that Barnes was a quiet, intelligent kid from small town Iowa who had unreal expectations foisted on him and who took time to develop into a leader and come into his own as a freshman on perhaps the most prestigious program in the NCAA?

Could it be that his marked progression is due to comfort and trust in teammates as well as his own development as a leader? Could it be that this kid will put together a monster season that no one is expecting or looking for? I believe all of these things are true and that the last one is more than likely.