NEW YORK — When last they gathered together in a setting like this surrounded by microphones and cameras, under the glare of a bright public spotlight North Carolinas season had just ended.
It was March, and Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller sat quietly in the Tar Heels locker room in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. They spoke in somber tones of a journey that concluded with an 80-67 defeat against Kansas in the NCAA tournament Midwest regional final.
It was very difficult, said Barnes, who sat in front of his locker for nearly 20 minutes after that loss with a towel covering his head. But, I mean, thats part of the game. You play, and unfortunately we werent able to get over the hump. But we gave it all we could and now its time for another stage in my life.
He spoke Wednesday in a posh Times Square hotel, surrounded by national and international media. Henson was at the next table, and Zeller, wearing large gray low-rise Chuck Taylors, walked in after a while. Their new journey will begin Thursday, when they will learn their fate in the NBA draft.
Barnes, Henson and Zeller are three of the 14 players the NBA invited to attend the draft. Kendall Marshall, the Tar Heels former point guard, wont be in attendance but he could be selected among the top 14 picks, too.
More than seven months ago, the foursome represented the primary reason North Carolina began the season ranked No. 1 and the overwhelming favorite to win a national championship. Now, in a strange way, the three players here appeared calmer than they did then, as if theyd been traveling with fewer burdens.
Hes relaxed, man, Henson said of Barnes, as if it hadnt always been that way.
Yes, Henson said, there had been some moments last season when things were good, and when Barnes seemed carefree.
But then there were other times. The further the Tar Heels advanced in the NCAA tournament, the more Barnes shot seemed to elude him. In his final two college games, he didnt resemble the player hed been at other times during his two seasons at North Carolina.
Obviously, (he took) a lot of criticism, Henson said. And thats something you have to deal with when people expect great things from you. And I told him itd be a lot worse if people didnt expect anything from you.
The expectations, so grand then, have changed. They have, in some ways, become easier to handle.
Henson and Zeller, the ACC Player of the Year, will enter the NBA as complementary players with an understood learning curve. Marshall, who sometimes bristled during the season at the notion that North Carolina underachieved, likely wont be expected to lead his new team to a championship.
Barnes, though projected as high as the No. 2 overall pick, wont be burdened by the savior label he carried with him to Chapel Hill. The thought that things might be easier now brought a smile.
Well, I have no record right now, Barnes said, so things are pretty relaxed and theres no expectation. Im trying to really just enjoy myself right now. Ive worked very hard to get to this point, and Im just trying to enjoy every moment.
Barnes, Henson and Zeller seemed to be. About an hour before he was obligated to meet with media members, Henson strolled into the hotel with his hands full of shopping bags. He raved about all the free stuff hed been given, and about how he can accept such things now that were not in college anymore.
If the trio was worried about where they might be headed, about which teams might draft them, they didnt show it. Barnes most difficult pre-draft workout, he said, was with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Zeller said his was with the Houston Rockets. For Henson, it was the one with the Detroit Pistons.
They all had something to prove. Different things. Athleticism for Barnes, strength for Henson, shooting ability for Zeller.
Now comes the moment theyve been waiting for. Barnes, Henson and Zeller said they have kept in touch in recent months. They have talked often among themselves, and with Marshall. Henson and Zeller went through many of the same workouts with NBA teams.
Now the foursome will go their separate ways. Barnes, Henson and Zeller will travel Thursday from Times Square to Newark, N.J., to hear their names called.
Its a lot more relaxing than my college decision, Barnes said. Because that was all on me. So I just get to sit back.