Cat Barber delivers for NC State

ByDana O'Neil via ESPN logo
Thursday, April 2, 2015

PITTSBURGH -- The question, captured by TV cameras in a video now gone viral, was, let's just say for argument's sake, rhetorical.

"What the f--- wrong with Barack Obama?" Cat Barber said as he and his NC State Wolfpack teammates celebrated their upset ofVillanovain the third round of the NCAA tournament.

Since the leader of the free world presumably has a few more important things on his plate than to answer the celebratory ruminations of a 20-year-old basketball player, allow us to answer for him.

There's nothing wrong with President Obama, at least not with his basketball-choosing logic. He was probably thinking, like a lot of us, that NC State spent from Dec. 12 to Jan. 22 exchanging one win with one loss before going full bore loss-loss-loss-win-loss-loss, and that choosing the unreliable Wolfpack to oust a 1-seed Villanova Wildcats team that had been the model of consistency all season was, perhaps, a little foolish, and so he opted instead for Villanova.

He just forgot about Cat Barber.

"When Cat Barber took his game to another level here about a month, month and a half ago, it changed everything for our team," NC State coach Mark Gottfried said.

Cinderella took an early vacation from this NCAA tournament, jilted for a second weekend date by the big boys. The only non-power conference teams left in the Sweet 16 are Wichita State,Xavier and Gonzaga,and those three programsfit a glass slipper about as well as a Sasquatch with 10 bunions.

But that doesn't mean there haven't been any surprises. Count the wildly erratic Wolfpack among the biggest. Outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, you'd be hard-pressed to find many NC State believers on Selection Sunday, which is what prompted Barber's profane question in the first place.

The sophomore point guard embodies the personality of this NC State team. He's a one-time top-flight recruit who has somehow managed to hold tight to his hunger, and the Wolfpack are a proud program loaded with talent that still believes it has something to prove.

"We always felt like our talent was underrated," freshman forwardAbdul-Malik Abusaid. "We were picked preseason 10th in the ACC. That's a pride thing. We thought we could go out there and beat all these teams that everybodyloves so much."

They didn't think that back in January, or if they did, they sure didn't play like it. The Wolfpack dragged the albatross of a pedestrian 13-9 record (4-5 in the ACC) out ofClemsonon Jan. 28 after a 68-57 loss, and the weight oftheir downward-spiraling record was topped only by the emotional weight being carried on Barber's shoulders.

Two weeks earlier he got a call from home. Jamar Thomas, his best friend, the man he refers to as his little brother, had been killed in a shooting. According to news reports, gunfire broke out in the parking lot of a bar in Hampton, Virginia, and Thomas was pronounced dead upon his arrival at a nearby hospital. It was a little more than a month after his 20th birthday.

The news was awful, even if it was not altogether unusual. Barber and Thomas grew up together in Newport News, Virginia, one of the state's most dangerous cities. Barber admitted that Thomas chose a "different path," one that he knew could lead to trouble, one that Barber avoided only because of basketball.

Still, the two remained tight, and the news of Thomas' death, which came the same day the Wolfpack were to play at Florida State, sent him reeling.

"I wish they would have called me after [the game]," Barber said, "but that's my little brother and they wanted me to know. I just couldn't do it. Coach pulled me aside and said, 'Do you think you can play?', and I was like, 'Nah, man. I can't."

So he didn't, and the next game, against Miami, Gottfried didn't start Barber. Finally, after a tentative three points and one assist in that seasonal nadir at Clemson, Gottfried pulled Barber aside and gave him simple advice.

"Go be Cat," he said.

His real name is Anthony, and, while the public address announcers at the NCAA tournament sites might still refer to him that way, no one else does. Barber's older sister, Pamela, bequeathed him with his moniker after watching him squeeze through tiny spaces in the house and among crowds or climb up on countertops to reach upper cupboards.

The name just happens to suit his game, too.

Yes, Barber is cat quick, a cat burglar who can slip his way through defenders and either get to the rim and finish or find someone else on his team to do it. His game is straight from the playground (and that is meant as a compliment), more feel than finesse, as much attitude as ability.

But for that stretch after Thomas' death, Barber was more kitten than Cat.

"I always felt like for us to ever go to another level, he's the guy," Gottfried said. "Somehow, we've got to get him playing at a higher level. My encouragement to him was you just need to be you. ... If you're going to make mistakes, make them, but let's make them a hundred miles an hour. I don't want you walking the ball up the court, playing conservatively. I want you to cut it loose."

If there was a light-bulb moment, Barber doesn't remember it. He just sort of shook off his funk, and rather than only grieve Thomas, he decided to celebrate him through basketball. Against Georgia Tech on Jan. 31, Barber scored 23 points, dished out seven assists and turned the ball over just once.

Since then, he's averaged 15.2 points, 4.1 assists and just 2.3 turnovers despite playing 34 minutes per game.

"My confidence is skyrocketing," Barber said. "It's at the highest it's been right now. I feel like myself: back to Cat."

Included in that run of recent success is a 21-point, four-assist, two-turnover game at Louisville, in which Barber helped the Wolfpack beat the previously surging Cardinals 74-65.

Barber's dissection of Louisville earned high praise from Cardinals coach Rick Pitino, who said Barber ''put on a clinic of beating everybody off the dribble."

No doubt Barber will try to do the same again when NC State faces No. 4 seed Louisville in their regional semifinal matchup. He'll have plenty of fuel.

He once was on Louisville's recruiting radar, but the Cardinals abruptly ended their interest after Barber's official visit, opting for Chris Jones instead.

Of course, since then, Jones has been dismissed from the team amid rape and sodomy charges, leaving the guard-oriented Cards in a pickle while Barber has steered the Wolfpack to the Sweet 16.

Which, perhaps, could mean just one thing if the surprisingly surging Wolfpack move on to the Elite Eight.

A movie sequel: "What's wrong with Rick Pitino?"

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