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Ed Hardin: Cat Barber is finally cutting loose

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N.C. State's Cat Barber, right, and North Carolina's Brice Johnson share a laugh as they wait to enter the game Tuesday night in Chapel Hill.

He’s a different kind of cat.

So you can forget trying to figure him out. He is elusive and a little unpredictable. Just when you think you have him cornered, he’s gone.

Cat Barber might be the best point in college basketball. Or not. We’ve seen signs of both. But right now, based on what we’ve seen the past few weeks, he just might be the only player in America who can’t be guarded.

He’s that fast.

And since the Georgia Tech game on the last day of January, he has become the rarest thing in college basketball. He’s become as good as he was rumored to be.

“He’s playing at another level,” State coach Mark Gottfried said.

Coming out of Hampton (Va.) High School two years ago, he was the talk of the recruiting class, a wiry little playmaker who people kept comparing to Allen Iverson and Clyde Austin.

“Quick on quick,” was how one scouting service described him. “Almost impossible to contain.”

So when he arrived in Raleigh last season, he had no chance to live up to the expectations. And he didn’t.

Even two months into his sophomore season, we hadn’t seen the guy everyone was talking about. We still don’t know what to make of him, but one thing is certain. He’s figuring himself out. His team is learning how to play with the fastest point guard in American running the offense.

And opponents have no idea how to handle him.

“He dominated us,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said two weeks ago after State whipped the Cardinals 74-65 in Louisville.

“He controlled the game,” UNC coach Roy Williams said after State’s 58-46 win in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night.

Barber is dominating everyone right now. He’s controlling every game. For the first time since coming to N.C. State, he’s the guy we kept hearing about.

“Go be Cat,” Gottfried told him a few weeks ago. “Cut it loose.”

And just like that, State had the fastest point guard in the America. Just like that, State went from a disappointing basketball team with dysfunctional parts to a running nightmare for the rest of the ACC to contend with as we enter March.

“The way we’re playing right now is kind of scary,” Barber said after the win over Carolina. “I know teams are like, ‘What in the world is N.C. State doing right now?'”

State is morphing before our very eyes. And the cat running the show is getting better.

As the first month of ACC games wound down, Barber was struggling. He had lost his confidence. He had made five of 20 three-pointers all season, having all but stopped shooting from the outside. He was skittish and prone to periods of horrid basketball. He was back to last season, when he lost his starting job to Tyler Lewis, which started rumors that he might transfer.

When the season ended, it was Lewis who decided to leave and State was left with its combustible point guard with the impossible reputation and little to show for it. And three weeks ago, State’s season seemed doomed.

The Pack lost six of eight games. Barber missed one game because of a death of a friend then fell out of the starting lineup and even the rotation. It was last season all over again, and this time he was bringing the team down with him.

Gottfried gave the project to his assistant Rob Moxley, who had worked with Barber in the offseason. Moxley knew it was a confidence issue, and his instructions for getting his game back were simple.

“Shoot the ball,” he told Barber.

Gottfried was more specific.

“This is your time,” he said. “Be yourself.”

Barber’s time has finally arrived. And so has the Wolfpack’s. After almost beating Virginia, the Pack has won three straight games. In his last six games, Barber is averaging more than 18 points, raising his shooting percentage, his free-throw percentage, his assists per game, his steals per game and lowering his turnover rate.

He's running an offense that’s running smoothly for the first time all season.

“We’re all watching him,” Gottfried said. “We’re watching him take his game to another level, growing in confidence, learning how to be a dynamic point guard. We have to keep challenging him and pushing him. He has a great future ahead of him.”

For the first time since his high school scouting reports suggested the second coming of Tiny Archibald, we’re seeing the Cat Barber we heard about.

“They tell me to be Cat every game,” Barber said. “Just be myself.”

We’re seeing a different kind of cat now. We’re seeing a different kind of State basketball.

We’re seeing something rare in college basketball, a player living up to impossible expectations.

Finally.

Contact Ed Hardin at (336) 373-7069, and follow @Ed_Hardin on Twitter.

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