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September 28, 2011Perhaps more than anybody else on North Carolina's roster, Harrison Barnes can expect to be the center of attention heading into the 2011-2012 season.
A first-team preseason All-American last year as a freshman, this year he's surely going to grace the cover of multiple preseason publications as one of the primary faces of the team that many are expecting to run roughshod over the Atlantic Coast Conference if not the entire country this winter and next spring.
He could haven the easy money that comes with being an NBA lottery pick, but Barnes knows that a dominant 2011-2012 season in Chapel Hill will only raise his pro stock.
And he also knows that he's got a chance to do something this coming season that would have forever eluded him had he gone straight to the pros---a chance to put a national championship ring on his finger, and to get his jersey in the rafters of the Smith Center.
"Just knowing that I get to play with these guys (my teammates) for another year---and just being able to go ahead and play with them again---like I've said, these guys are like brothers to me. I love them with all I am," Barnes said in an interview this summer with Tar Heel Illustrated.
Barnes is savvy enough to know that there's no way to avoid the limelight when you're arguably the top returning player on a team that could very well be a unanimous pick for the preseason No. 1 ranking when that comes out in a few weeks.
"That's just how it is. People have certain expectations for you, and when you don't live up to those, then you get criticized, which I felt like was sometimes going on with LeBron (James), but I'm obviously not comparing myself to him," Barnes said.
"We have an opportunity to win it all, and we have an opportunity to completely fail," he added.
"I mean, it's just a matter of continuing to stay humble, taking the right steps, and getting back up to the top like we did last year."
There's absolutely no doubt that trying to win an NCAA title as a sophomore was a driving force in his decision to come back to college, but there's also motivation within Barnes to improve several areas of his game.
"It (winning a title) factored into it (my decision to return) a lot, because the Final Four, we were a team that was right there," Barnes said. "Just think about the Kentucky loss. In that game there was so much at stake, but I feel like they had more of an 'edge' than we did."
The fact that the season could all end devastatingly one day in March or early April no matter how well the regular season goes is one thing that's helped Barnes keep everything on task during the offseason.
It keeps him and his teammates focused.
"When we lost that game (to Kentucky), our season ended. So I think just having that chip on our shoulders---knowing that if you don't come out with the right edge that your season can be ended like that---I just think it's going to keep us on our edge all year," he said.
"I think it's a building process. I think if we learned anything about last year, it's about consistency and about taking the right steps. I feel like last year we lost some very important games and I feel like we built off that."
"We can't expect to come into this team as an Elite Eight team (from a year ago), we just need to get through the regular season in order to get back there. And then when you get to the NCAA Tournament, it just matters on the day, Who's better on that day?" Barnes added.
Barnes is looking to become better this season in transition with his ability to take the ball and be able to help Kendall Marshall instead of relying merely on Marshall to get him the ball.
"Ball handling---definitely ball handling. I just want to improve on that," Barnes said. "I think that will add diversity in terms of starting our break early."
"It allows Kendall to just run out on the wing and so I can pitch it to him and he can make a play, or I can just take it to the rim myself. So I think that will definitely help us out a lot."
Barnes doesn't classify 'failure' in terms of individual games, wins or losses.
From a big picture perspective, he sees failure as a collective thing with the team. That's another way that he is handling all the expectations and prognostications.
"What would qualify as a failure? Everyone not giving their all for this team. Not putting forth the effort that we need to," he said.
"Last year I felt like we made a lot of sacrifices in terms of (sacrificing) social life and coming together as a team, and (letting go of) pride and ego and stuff like that. I think it would be a failure if we didn't do that this year and we didn't win the national championship because of that."
"I think the biggest thing that this team has is the ability to just keep fighting," Barnes continued.
UNC has shored up multiple weaknesses with its incoming freshman class, as the Tar Heels will have added depth at point guard along with improved outside shooting capability and solid frontcourt athleticism.
"I don't know what our Achilles Heel is, and I don't know what our biggest strength is. I just think that as long as we just be consistent---everything depends on consistency," Barnes said.
"If we can do that night in and night out, I think that at the end of the season we'll be smiling. I think that's what happened at the beginning of the season, and then our last game (against Kentucky). We weren't consistent throughout that game, which is why we lost."
The ACC field this season looks a little watered down compared to recent year's past, and there's some already talking about the possibility of Carolina running the table and going a perfect 16-0 in the league this winter.
It's not unheard of for North Carolina to go undefeated in league play, but it has been nearly a quarter-century---1986-1987 to be exact---since Dean Smith's talented squad of Kenny Smith, Joe Wolf, J.R. Reid, Scott Williams, Jeff Lebo, and others went 14-0 in an eight-team conference.
Barnes, like his head coach Roy Williams, isn't worried in the least about going undefeated in ACC play.
From a very practical and 'older than his years' perspective, Barnes recalled so many close conference games last season---particularly road battles at Miami, Clemson, Duke, and others---that literally could have gone either way with a few bounces of the ball.
Indeed, this North Carolina team doesn't have to go unbeaten in ACC play to be remembered, but at the same time, don't expect Barnes to be taking any nights off anytime soon.
"We saw this past year in the ACC season, there's always a team out there that can beat you. Half our games if it would have been a few more points' difference, we would have probably lost six games. You've just always got to come out ready to play every night.
"I think we're still the underdogs in a way, because we didn't get to the Final Four last year. We didn't win a national championship. We can't go through this season with all the same steps. We have to try to go out there and hopefully win another ACC regular season championship, maybe win the ACC Tournament."