Originally written March 21, 2012 on Fox Sports Midwest:
Somewhere, there's a quiet assassin, buried underneath all those layers of polish and nice. Vance Downs saw it several times when Harrison Barnes played for him at Ames High School, where they didn't lose a game for two seasons, where he was Chuck Norris in high-tops. In fact, Downs saw it so often, it was hard to come up with a favorite; Barnes could turn it on with the flick of a switch. There was the time in Marshalltown, with nearly a half-dozen Division I coaches in attendance including North Carolina's Roy Williams and Florida's Billy Donovan when the 6-foot-8 Iowan was given the ball on the wing, told to make something happen, and responded with a dunk that simultaneously scattered the opposition and crushed their spirit. There was the Class 4A state championship two years ago, against Southeast Polk, a powerhouse from suburban Des Moines, Barnes' last stand as a prep superstar. "And the run he made the first five minutes of the game pretty much put the game away," Downs, Barnes' old coach, told FOXSports.com when asked about the Tar Heel forward. "I remember that very distinctly. He just said, 'I'm going set the tone right now,' and the first five or six minutes of the game, it was over." There's a groundswell bubbling in North Carolina Nation at least, among those who aren't still busy crucifying Creighton's Ethan Wragge on Twitter that without point guard Kendall Marshall, the Midwest regional in St. Louis this weekend is Barnes' big moment; a chance to put the Heels on his back and carry them all the way to the promised land. To this point, he has shown the dominance expected of the nation's top high-school player, but only for stretches, snippets of pure silk. Barnes has shown the wherewithal to take over a half or even a game, depending on the circumstances. But can he take over a weekend in Bracketville? Or, better yet, two? "I think we do play well when the cards are stacked against us," Barnes, who heads into Friday night's game against Ohio averaging 17.4 points and 5.2 rebounds, told reporters Tuesday. "So maybe it's kind of a blessing in disguise." It's funny, really. As a player, Barnes is the complete package: Smart, poised, great range, massive wingspan, soft hands, sick hops, vision, the works. "He could play all five positions (on the floor), no question," Downs chuckled. "I couldn't doubt he could be anything that he wanted to be, including President." In fact, the worst thing said about the Ames native's game growing up was that he was well, too political, too polite. In 73 contests as a collegian, Barnes is averaging 13.5 shots per game, but has exceeded 19 attempts just twice, both coming during his freshman campaign. As a sophomore, Barnes has averaged 13.6 attempts; his hero, Michael Jordan, averaged 14.5 attempts when he was a sophomore at Chapel Hill. "He can be very unselfish, sometimes," Downs noted. "But, in the same respect, he's extremely driven and extremely competitive. "Sometimes, kids may need to hear, 'Hey, it's your game, take it.' He played with really talented kids, obviously. He was unselfish and he'd share the ball at times. He was the most explosive player I've ever coached, without a doubt in a heartbeat, he'd put 12 on you." The world wants to see what Selfish Harrison can do, especially with the Heels' depth at guard now painfully thin. Before Marshall broke a bone in his right, non-shooting wrist during last Sunday's win over Creighton, Carolina had already lost Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland to season-ending knee injuries. The Heels have two backup plans: Unproven or Unknown. Freshman Stilman White and senior Justin Watts, Marshall's two understudies, have yet to sniff life on the big stage. Life without Marshall makes the Heels weakest at a place where 13th-seeded Ohio is the toughest in the backcourt. Bobcats point guard D.J. Cooper is the Bobcats' engine, a cold-hearted bomber who dropped 21 on Michigan and 19 on South Florida. The 5-11 Chicago native averages 14.9 points, 5.7 assists and 2.3 steals per contest. So if there was ever a time for the quiet assassin to assert himself, brother, it's now. "(Harrison) was one of those players where if he felt he needed to get in there or the guys needed a little motivation or coaching tips (he'd offer them)," noted Iowa State guard Bubu Palo, one of Barnes' old Ames teammates. "He just picked and chose his moments." A moment such as Tuesday, maybe, when Barnes used a news conference to call out ESPN analyst Doug Gottleib one of several talking heads who've stuck their respective forks in the Tar Heels. "I mean, our confidence hasn't changed at all," Barnes said. "Doug Gottlieb, the person who knows everything, has his own statements. We are going to go out there and continue to play good basketball." When one reporter noted that Gottleib "couldn't shoot free throws," Barnes quipped: "Among other things." Later, a reporter said he had Gottleib's cell phone number and offered to text him a question. To that, the sophomore replied: "See if you can get the flight over to St. Louis. I'd love to meet him." Those who watched the kid grow up will also tell you it's not a good idea to make him angry. To paraphrase the old "Incredible Hulk" television show, you wouldn't like Harrison Barnes when he's angry. Unless, of course, you're a Carolina fan. You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com
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