CHAPEL HILL — As the clean-up crews moved through the deserted stands of the Smith Center on Nov. 12 last year and the clock neared 10 p.m., Harrison Barnes was still on the court long after North Carolina's win against Lipscomb. The crowd that had watched the Tar Heels freshman score 14 points in his college basketball debut was long gone.
The PA pumped out "Unfortunate," by Trey Songz, as Barnes added his own percussion: The soft thunk of his dribble on the court, the gentle splash of the ball going through the net, the reverberating squeak of his sneakers as he tried to find his rhythm.
During the first half of last season, Barnes often sought time alone on the court after games, an attempt to accelerate the adjustment to college basketball that he had found surprisingly challenging.
Only a few months later, he was gone. The Smith Center court was quiet late at night again. Barnes, who had found his shot and hit his stride, was nowhere to be found.
"At the end of the year, it was more like, 'Hey, you're playing well - and you're also playing a lot more minutes,' " Barnes said with a laugh. "The body was tired. I had to do a lot more maintenance."
The workload was welcome. By the end of the year, Barnes had become the go-to scorer the Tar Heels thought he would be, with a 40-point outburst against Clemson in the ACC tournament as his own personal masterpiece.
This season dawns with high expectations for North Carolina, and even higher expectations for Barnes, although he appears far more equipped to fulfill them this time around.
Barnes is bigger and stronger. He is more confident on and off the court, more comfortable in his own skin, no longer figuring things out but calling his own shots. He was precociously mature as a freshman but now seems older than even some of his much older teammates.
"The biggest change I see in Harrison is demeanor," sophomore teammate Kendall Marshall said. "He's a lot more aggressive and not so laid-back 100 percent of the time. He's still by nature a very laid-back guy, but he has a tenacity about himself now, at both ends of the court."
Barnes is on the cover of four national preview magazines, from Slam to Sports Illustrated, the best player on what many expect to be the best team in the country, a crew capable of winning a third national title in eight years. The season will begin Friday against Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, moving toward its conclusion in New Orleans in April.
If last season was the Year of the Rat - when North Carolina's fortunes turned on Larry Drew II's sneaky midseason departure, allowing Marshall to take over at point guard and the Tar Heels to realize their potential - this is the Year of the Black Falcon.
This is the year of Harrison Barnes.
Last season was supposed to be the season of Harrison Barnes. He swamped future NBA No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving in ACC preseason rookie of the year voting, then he became the first freshman voted onto the AP preseason all-America team.
It wasn't fair to Barnes, not from the start. Expectations placed upon him before he ever walked on campus would have been nearly impossible to achieve. He was expected to score 20 points a game, dominate older players and step into the footsteps of the legendary college players who preceded him at North Carolina - very few of whom were asked to do the same.
Just down the road, Irving stepped seamlessly into Duke's lineup, which only heightened the pressure on Barnes. But they were in different situations: Irving was a point guard surrounded by veteran talent, as Marshall would be for North Carolina later in the season. Barnes didn't have the luxury of deferring to others; others were expected to defer to him.
"It was different than what I thought it would be," Barnes acknowledges now. "It's growing pains, that's the best way to describe it. You're overwhelmed at first, with the massive course load, and practice, and your body is not used to all that."
"I felt like I was mature coming into it, but there is another level you need to get to in order to be the best you can be at a different level."
In that respect, Barnes was no different than any other freshman stepping onto campus. As talented as he was, he was still a freshman, still a rookie new to the game.
"They still have to see it in action," coach Roy Williams said. "They have to see it here in person. They have to see what it means."
Even Barnes, with his talent and exposure, couldn't escape that trap. Not right away, anyway. It took him a while. And when he figured it out, the results were spectacular.
It was obvious the change in point guard from Drew to Marshall broke something loose inside Barnes, enabling him to be the player he thought he could be. Marshall, a far better fit on the court and in the locker room with Barnes and big men John Henson and Tyler Zeller, made a difference. But there was more than that going on with Barnes.
He could feel it the day of the Tar Heels' Jan. 29 home game against N.C. State. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it was Marshall's third game in the starting lineup, six days before Drew would leave the team.
"I'd been in a slump, up to that point," Barnes said. "I was kind of just able to break out in front of the home crowd and had a great game. I remember, I was in here that morning, and my shot was feeling really good. I was thinking, 'It'd be great if today was the day that would finally translate.' Some days, I'd worked out so well in the morning and at game time, it hadn't worked out."
Barnes set a new career-high with 25 points that game against the Wolfpack, in only 26 minutes. With Marshall in the lineup, the Tar Heels went 17-3, losing only to Duke (twice) and Kentucky. No one benefited more than Barnes.
His scoring almost doubled, from around 12 points per game to more than 19, and his field-goal percentage similarly improved. In seven postseason games, Barnes averaged 22.6 points, including the 40 points against Clemson in the ACC tournament.
"I kept telling you, if Harrison Barnes was my biggest concern, I was in great position," Williams said. "I saw it coming in practice. It just didn't transfer over into games as quickly as he wanted to, more than anybody, or me and the rest of the coaches wanted, or his teammates. He's an extremely focused young man. I really believe he's prepared himself in the spring and summer to have a great, great year."
One more try
Perhaps the most significant moment of his offseason preparations was the decision to return to Chapel Hill, creating comparisons to North Carolina's 2009 national champions that were impossible to avoid.
In the summer of 2008, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green passed on the NBA to come back for one last shot at a title. Barnes, Henson and Zeller did the same this summer.
Of the three, Barnes was the most likely to make the jump, just as his close friend Irving did. That he chose to stay can be understood to mean there is business at North Carolina he does not intend to leave unfinished.
Still, there's only one shot at this. The players who passed on the NBA, Barnes included, won't pass again. The lockout will be over. It will be time to move on.
"I think last year the fans were much more on edge, wondering if this was the team that was going to bring us back to the tournament and make a deep run. This year, I think they kind of know what to expect."
So does Barnes. So do the Tar Heels. He's a preseason first-team all-American again. North Carolina is the preseason No. 1 team in the country. Whatever expectations were unfair last season are justified now.