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Heralded freshmen at center of UNC-Kentucky game today

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Harrison Barnes was hailed as an immediate savior when he walked onto the North Carolina with the Tar Heels coming off a disappointing season.

Instead, the freshman who was voted an All-American before playing a game has had a frustrating start to his college career. He has had an 0-for-12 shooting performance, suffered three losses and even heard mocking chants of "Overrated!" from a hostile crowd.

Barnes' ups and downs become more glaring when looking at the quick starts by heralded Kentucky freshmen Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight, who will lead the 10th-ranked Wildcats into Chapel Hill on Saturday.

"He's very bright," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said of Barnes on Friday. "He understands that what he has to do is please himself and his coaches and teammates. He's not pleased with the way he's played, but it's not going to be driven by somebody else's opinion of him. ... I think he understands it might take a while, and that's the way I'm looking at it."

The 6-foot-8 forward was the first freshman named to The Associated Press preseason All-American team since voting began before the 1986-87 season. He has a polished all-around game and gives the Tar Heels (4-3) some needed perimeter punch -- something they sorely lacked during last year's 17-loss season -- but he's struggling with his shot and is averaging 11 points per game so far.

In the five games since his season-best 19-point outing against Hofstra, Barnes has failed to score in double figures three times and is shooting 14 for 57 (25 percent) and 4 for 17 (24 percent) from three-point range.

He missed all 12 shots in a loss to Minnesota in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, and is coming off a 2 for 9 shooting night in Wednesday's loss at No. 20 Illinois -- where he was serenaded with the "Overrated!" chants in the second half.

Afterward, Williams defended Barnes while criticizing ESPN and other media outlets, saying, "If you're going to anoint the guy and three weeks later crucify him, that's ridiculous."

Teammates Tyler Zeller and John Henson said they're telling Barnes not to put too much pressure on himself.

"It is business and it is about winning and it is about playing well, but you've got to have fun," said Henson, one of Barnes' roommates. "You only experience college one time in your life. I think he sometimes takes it a little hard on himself out there. He just needs to enjoy it and just loosen up a little bit out there and I think he'll be just fine. I think his best days are yet to come and once he figures it out, it's going to be scary for the rest of the country."

The Wildcats (5-1) sound like they expect Barnes to play well Saturday.

"I think it's unfair what the media has done with him, I think there have been people that have said that," Kentucky assistant coach John Robic said. "But he's a talented pro. He's a definite pro. We have our hands full with him because of his size."

While Barnes finds his way, Kentucky just keeps churning out freshmen stars who adjust quickly to college. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins went to the NBA after getting within a game of the Final Four in coach John Calipari's first season. But Jones and Knight have filled right in for them.

Jones, a powerful 6-8 forward, is averaging almost 21 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 51 percent to anchor the low post. Knight is second on the team at 17 points from the point, though neither player worried about all the attention heaped on Barnes' every move.

"We don't really feed into that stuff, we don't really care about that stuff," Knight said. "Our main thing is focusing on our team and what we do and try to get wins for our team, not focusing on other players and their accolades and the hype that they came in with. We're focusing on Kentucky, our group."

The Tar Heels had won five straight meetings in the series before the Wildcats took a 68-66 win at Rupp Arena last season. In that game, the Wildcats ran off a 28-2 spurt to take a huge first-half lead, then held off a late surge by the Tar Heels in the final minute.

Like last year, North Carolina could use a win against a marquee name to gain some confidence with a young group that's still working to become a cohesive unit -- and waiting to see Barnes become comfortable with the college game.

"He's a big boy and he's going to be able to handle this," Williams said. "I think he makes strides every week. I think at times if anything he may overanalyze, but that's OK. That means he cares. I don't think we should judge his body of work until his body of work is over."