GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It wasn’t too long ago that Harrison Barnes was riding shotgun around Iowa in Doug McDermott’s white Nissan Murano -- doing errands when they weren’t helping Ames High to consecutive state championships, taking breaks during March Madness to watch games together.
But neither could have foreseen, after graduating in 2010, that they would be matched up in the NCAA tournament Sunday for the chance to advance to the Sweet 16.
“It’s weird; it’s still weird; I think it will be weird at gametime,’’ said McDermott, whose eighth-seeded Creighton Bluejays will try to upset Barnes’ top-seeded North Carolina squad at approximately 5:15 p.m. EST at Greensboro Coliseum. “But I think once we step on the floor, it’ll be just another game.”
The pairing has been anticipated since the NCAA field was announced, and both friends have taken distinctly different routes to this showdown.
Barnes, now a 6-foot-8 wing, was a four-year starter at Ames who broke the state’s career scoring record.
McDermott, now a 6-7 forward, was a later bloomer, spending two years on the junior varsity, then coming off the bench his junior season before joining Barnes in the opening lineup as a senior.
It was watching Barnes’ work ethic -- his willingness to practice on off-days, to hit the gym before anyone else, to focus on his goals -- McDermott said, that drove him to improve.
“Harrison's responsible for a lot of Doug's development,” Greg McDermott, Doug’s father and Creighton’s coach, said. “... When other high school-aged students were going to movies and going to football games and going to the prom, Harrison was working out.
“And I really believe that Doug saw in Harrison a guy that he wanted to emulate and saw the improvement and said, ‘You know what? I think that I now know what it takes.’ He could listen to his dad and his high school coach, but when you see it in Harrison, the improvement he made each year of high school because of his work ethic, it was certainly impactful for Doug.”
Another thing that inspired him, Doug McDermott said, was having the best college coaches in the country -- including UNC’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski -- watching Barnes (and therefore, the rest of the team) at Ames’ games.
Greg McDermott said that Williams saw his son play almost as much as he did his junior and senior seasons, "and that made a lot of us better because it brought so much more attention ... and it made us all want to be better players, a better team," Doug McDermott said.
Barnes, considered the top recruit in the country by many, ended up choosing Williams and the Tar Heels, where he earned ACC Rookie of the Year Honors last season. He is a member of the All-ACC first-team this year, and will almost certainly be an NBA lottery pick if he goes pro this summer.
McDermott originally signed with Northern Iowa before being released to play for his father at Creighton. This season, he became the first first-team All-American in the school’s history-- an honor Barnes has not yet earned, but for which he has congratulated his friend.
“His growth has been tremendous,’’ said Barnes, who leads UNC with 17.3 ppg. “Just having the ability to go to Creighton, go to a system where he’s able to grow and develop. And now everyone’s starting to see that, see his efficiency magnified, and see him get the shots he needs and in the right location he needs them in, and it’s been great. And as a former teammate, it’s been fun to watch.”
Although it might not be so fun if McDermott, who is averaging 23 point per game, continues that pattern Sunday.
It’s unclear how often (or if) the teammates-turned-foes will match up head-to-head. Although McDermott is productive both in the lane and behind the arc (he shoots 60.8 percent overall, and 49.5 percent on 3s), he starts with three shorter guards. That means he’ll likely draw 6-9 freshman forward James Michael McAdoo (or 6-11 John Henson, if he returns from a sprained left wrist), at least at the beginning of the game.
No matter the one-on-one match-ups, McDermott said he looks forward to having the teams match up. And to putting all those memories of high school car rides, practices and NCAA-watching aside -- as least for a few hours.
“We're both competitive dudes, so I think it should be a really fun game,’’ McDermott said.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.