Barnes leads UNC into Puerto Rico Tip-Off

Staff writerNovember 17, 2010 

— After a 2-for-9, six-turnover exhibition debut, North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes stayed for so long at the Smith Center, working on shot after shot in the practice gym, that he didn’t even know what time he left: "It was very dark," he explained.

After a 14-point, 4-rebound regular season debut, he stayed late again, “because I feel that the images of the game are most vivid after the game, so it’s easier for me to go and work on things,” he said.

So what will he do after Thursday night's Puerto Rico Tip-off game against Hofstra (1-0), considering the Coliseo de Puerto Rico is at least a 10-minute bus ride from the team hotel?

"I’m not sure – I’ll figure out something, though," he said.

The easy answer, of course, would be that 6-feet-6 starting wing plays so impressively that he doesn’t need the extra work. Except he never thinks he doesn’t need the extra work.

In high school, he used to ask his coach, Vance Downs, for the keys to the gym – even when the team was supposed to be off. Once he reached Chapel Hill this summer, he asked team strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian to come in and work him out – even on holidays.

He became a pied piper, of sorts, as teammates started following him to the weight room, not wanting to be left behind.

"That’s the thing about Harrison," teammate Dexter Strickland said over the summer. "No matter how good he is, he thinks – he knows – he can get better."

Indeed, while Barnes said his biggest adjustments have been to the speed and physicality of the college game, he’s embraced coach Roy Williams’ intense workouts. And he’s seemingly shrugged off the pressure that’s been placed on him (exhibition performance notwithstanding), saying he believes the hype that surrounded him at Ames High last year was greater than what he’s facing now.

"Being the No. 1 recruit [in the nation], I was the hunted," he said. "But now I'm in college, and I'm playing for a team where we didn't go to the NCAA tournament last year. So our team motto as a whole is that we're the hunters -- we need to go out and establish ourselves. Every game, we have to prove ourselves."

Winning the Puerto Rico Tip-Off would be a step in the right direction. Although the Tar Heels (1-0) remain No. 8 in the AP poll, there are still plenty of questions surrounding a team that is trying to bounce back from a 17-loss season: Can it consistently score? Can it play better defense? Does it have a leader who can make a clutch shot?

Many of those answers may depend on Barnes, whose shooting prowess (1,787 points in high school); stick-to-it-tiveness (Williams said before the season he is the top defender on the team); and early comparisons to former Tar Heel Tyler Hansbrough when it comes to toughness and work ethic; are likely some of the reasons why he became the first freshman ever named to the Associated Press Preseason All-America first team.

But in true Barnes fashion, even that has given him another goal to work toward during all of the post-game shooting sessions that are to come.

"I was very honored and I was very humbled," he said of the award. "But at the same time, I want to make sure that I’m also a post-season All-American, as well."

And how will that happen?

"We win," said Barnes, who sets goals for every play, not just every game. "If we do that, everybody will get to show their best abilities."

Robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944.

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