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November 6, 2010CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - The lights dimmed in the Dean Smith Center, and the drum line began the beat.
For the first time in the 2010-'11 season, player introductions commenced and a new season had officially begun.
Granted, an exhibition game against Barton College isn't the same as playing Duke in March, but the introductions said something.
As the PA announcer boomed out the first name, a lanky young man from Ames (IA) rose to the roar of nearly 15,000 fans, slapped hands with his teammates, and took a place alone on the court.
With that, the Harrison Barnes Era officially began in Chapel Hill.
It was telling that Barnes was the first player introduced.
He's the man of the hour, the man of the night, and the man that many have already labeled as Carolina's season.
Yes, they are unrealistic and unfair expectations for a true freshman, but they are what they are.
When you're a 6-8 scorer who has drawn comparisons to NBA superstars Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, people tend to take notice.
When you become the first freshman to ever be voted to the Associated Press' pre-season All America team-as Barnes was this week-people tend to pile on the expectations.
And when you're the nation's top recruit joining a proud program coming off a forgetful season, people only want to know how you're going to help turn things around.
On Friday night, Barnes played like a true freshman might while donning Carolina blue for the very first time.
In 24 minutes, Barnes scored seven points and committed six turnovers. He missed all four of his three-point attempts and shot only two-of-nine from the field.
"(Harrison) had 'freshmanitis' tonight," Coach Roy Williams said after Carolina's 108-67 thumping of Barton.
Team rules prohibit freshmen from speaking to the media until after their first game, so Barnes' teammates spoke for him.
"First night out you're kind of tense, you're worried about what to do instead of just playing your game," junior Tyler Zeller said. "I think over time it's all going to come naturally to him."
Junior Justin Watts had some words of encouragement for the rookie.
"I told (Harrison) tonight is just a learning experience," Watts said. "You have to keep playing through it. You're going to have some tough games, but don't be too hard on yourself."
Barnes will be fine. He's an extremely gifted athlete that simply looked uncomfortable in his first collegiate game.
He appeared to be thinking his way through the offense instead of playing freely. It wasn't an instinctive performance for Barnes as much as it was a calculated one. He'll shed the safety lock in time.
But this is going to be life for the Tar Heels this year. They aren't going to ride one freshman to 30-plus wins and a Final Four berth like some have suggested. It just doesn't happen that way.
Carolina will have to form an identity as a tough and committed team. That statement began Friday.
"We wanted to go out and prove a point, and stop all the talking from everybody (about last year)," sophomore guard Dexter Strickland said. "We didn't have fun last year, and it led to the losses."
Strickland was one of the highlights from the exhibition.
In 22 minutes, Strickland scored 12 points and registered six assists. He made both of his attempts from three-point range.
After primarily playing the point guard position as a freshman, Strickland has seen more time at the 2-guard spot this year. He says it's his natural position and that with himself, junior Larry Drew II and freshman Kendall Marshall, there's plenty of guys who could fill in at the point and handle the ball.
"I think this team is going to be faster than last year's," Strickland said.
That bodes well for a Carolina team that wants to get out and run.
Williams has spoken all fall about how he pushed his team in summer conditioning and how he wanted to return to a more up-tempo style of game.
With a smaller lineup and big men that can run the floor, Carolina should take to that quite easily.
Zeller led all scorers with 25 points on the night, but what was most impressive was how he got out ahead on the fast break, which led to multiple easy buckets.
"Zeller is going to put a lot of pressure on the other team's big men to run back," Williams said.
Sophomore John Henson and senior transfer Justin Knox will help Zeller inside.
Henson grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked four shots in 17 minutes, and Knox added eight points and four rebounds off the bench.
Watts and sophomore guard Leslie McDonald have a chance to be impact contributors off the bench and provide depth.
With David and Travis Wear transferring to UCLA after last season and leaving Carolina a bit thin in the front court, Williams approached Watts and asked him if he would like to spend some time at the 4, a forward spot.
Watts said yes and has responded with energy and tenacity.
"I told coach I didn't have a problem playing the 4," Watts said. "If you're on the court, you're just a basketball player."
Watts noted the similarities in the forward and guard positions on defense given the system the Tar Heels run, and he seems comfortable in filling what Williams called a "vital" role.
"(My role) is to do the little things, help the young guys out on defense, talk to them, get offensive rebounds and do the things people don't notice," Watts said. "I've learned to slow the game down as I play and make smarter decisions."
Not that everything was great for Carolina against Barton.
Williams is looking for execution in these games that he calls "glorified practices," and, naturally, the Tar Heels have much room for improvement.
"I was not pleased with our rebounding, and our movement on offense," Williams said. "And late in the first half we were as dumb as dirt."
At the end of the half, Williams noted a possession where Zeller "tried to beat three guys, and there's three guys standing out there wide open."
He also didn't like Strickland shooting with too much time remaining on the clock, which allowed Barton to rebound the ball, make a pass and then drain a buzzer-beating three-pointer. "That's just not being smart," Williams said.
It's those little things that plagued Carolina last year, and it's going to be the same little things that determine whether or not the Tar Heels can post a better record this year than the 20-17 they posted in '09.
They will clean up the turnovers and tighten the defense. There's a reason they play these exhibitions.
But on the night that everyone came out to see Mr. Barnes, we must be reminded that, as sensational as he may be, the season is going to revolve around a group effort.
Barnes will get his soon enough. There's no shame in feeling some butterflies while playing your first home game in an arena that has names like Jordan, Worthy and Hansbrough hanging from its rafters.
But then Williams tells a story that speaks of Barnes' character and work ethic.
In the summer, Barnes got together with some teammates to play pick-up games. On one night, Barnes' team lost all four games.
"They got their tails kicked," Williams said.
How did Barnes respond?
"He was back in the gym at 2:30 a.m. shooting," Williams said. "And there's no doubt in my mind he will be back in the gym tonight.
"(Harrison) is the least of my worries."
If Williams can get his team to play Carolina basketball instead of merely relying on Barnes to become a playmaker-like so many have suggested will happen-rival ACC coaches won't be saying the same thing come spring.
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