DeCock: Questions remain after Harrison Barnes goes quiet

staff columnistMarch 26, 2012 

— For 17 minutes, Harrison Barnes sat in front of his locker, a blue towel draped over his head, which rested in his hands.

It was quiet around his locker: The click of a pen, the whirr of a camera shutter, the background murmurs of his teammates doing interviews elsewhere in the locker room.

Time passed. Tyler Zeller and Stilman White returned from the podium. Reggie Bullock talked for more than 10 minutes, then got up and walked over to Barnes, put a hand on his shoulder, a soft word in his ear. Finally, a reporter crept in close and asked Barnes if he was going to talk. Barnes exhaled, pulled the towel back from his head and leaned back in his chair.

If this was Barnes’ final game at North Carolina, what a strange and mixed legacy he leaves. He arrived amid as much hype as any recruit who ever chose between North Carolina and Duke, but in each of his two seasons so far the Tar Heels fell one game short of the Final Four, including Sunday’s 80-67 loss to Kansas.

“Just disbelief,” Barnes said of his time under the towel. “We had an opportunity to win that game and we didn’t come through. I missed a lot of shots I usually make, and big-time players come through in big-time games. It wasn’t there tonight.”

In the final minutes, as the Kansas lead went from seven to nine to goodbye, White – the freshman point guard thrown into the maw because of injuries to Kendall Marshall and Dexter Strickland – took the last-chance shots, not Barnes.

Capable, at times, of being one of the most dominant scorers the ACC has ever seen, there were too many games like Sunday where Barnes was a non-factor. He scored eight points in the final four minutes of the first half, and it felt like he was ready to take over the game. He made only one shot the rest of the game.

“Our coaching staff as well as the players on the court did a great job of getting him easier looks late in the half, and I think that was big for our offense,” Marshall said. “You can’t expect that Kansas isn’t going to make adjustments. That’s what great teams do. Obviously, it became a little tougher after that.”

When Marshall took over the offense midway through last season and everything clicked for the Tar Heels, Barnes started displaying the scoring ability expected of him when he arrived on campus, culminating in a stunning 40-point explosion against Clemson in the ACC tournament.

Yet he was never that dominant again as a sophomore, and in four NCAA tournament games this season, with first John Henson and then Marshall ailing, Barnes went 20-for-61 from the floor.

Watching him, even Sunday, there was always the feeling that he was one shot away from exploding. His talent, his ability, his drive – they remain unquestioned. And yet his two years fall well short of satisfying, for him and the team.

The debate will linger long after Barnes is gone: Was it his inability to create his own shot, leaving him too reliant on his teammates, holding him back? Or was his role in the North Carolina offense unsuited to his talents?

Asked about his NBA decision, Barnes would say only, “I haven’t thought that far yet.” But he would have been a lottery pick last year, and would be again if he turns pro this year. If he comes back, it’ll be a surprise.

He answered one final question about his future and the crowd around his locker melted away. He got up and walked around a corner, into the showers and out of view, possibly for the last time in a North Carolina uniform.

As Barnes walked away, North Carolina coach Roy Williams had just finished up on the interview podium. He made an opening statement and answered seven questions. Barnes’ name wasn’t mentioned once.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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