Every basketball team needs a leader. Often, coaches, teammates, and fans look to the point guard to fill this role. Senior Ka’Ron Barnes is used to this kind of responsibility; long before he was Cornell’s All-Ivy floor general, he was a Trooper.
“That started when I was born,” the 6-0, 190-pound guard said with a chuckle. “I was a breech birth, so I was going to come out backwards. There was a chance I might get strangled in the umbilical cord.
“The doctor came in and explained it all to my dad and my Aunt Jackie, that there might be some trouble with everything. But I was born okay — no problems at all. When they told my aunt that it went fine, she said I was a Trooper. Everyone calls me that back home.”
Barnes has certainly lived up to his nickname during his career on the East Hill. He has played in all but four of Cornell’s games since he arrived as a freshman for the 2000-2001 season. Barnes has started 61 of the 81 games during the three-year span, including all 27 as a junior.
“He’s always given us a consistent effort,” said head coach Steve Donahue.
Barnes’s play and leadership have garnered him co-captain honors for the second year in a row. Sharing this year’s title with junior F/C Eric Taylor, Barnes is whom his teammates look to for guidance and feedback on the floor.
“I’m looking to lead by example,” said Barnes. “I’ll do what I have to do to try and bring home the victory. Everyone else can follow my lead. I’ve been there over the years, and I have the experience. So, they can look to me.”
“He’s a natural leader in his approach,” said Donahue. “A lot of the guys look up to him; he’s the only senior we have.”
Barnes has embraced the responsibility of leadership and has tried to be more vocal early on this season. In addition to setting the standard for the rest of the team, he won’t hesitate to take some of the younger players aside to explain a tactic or coaching point. As most great point guards do, Barnes has evolved into a true second coach on the floor.
“I’m talking a lot more this year,” said Barnes. “I know I’ve got to get everyone pumped up and keep them hyped.”
Barnes has grown into this new persona after three years worth of ups and downs. Recruited out of Turner/Carroll High School in Buffalo, NY, Barnes averaged 28.4 minutes a night while playing in all 27 games during his freshman season. Barnes did well for himself, averaging in double figures in scoring and starting games at both guard positions. Unfortunately, team success proved elusive.
“Ka’Ron had a good freshman year, averaging in double figures,” said Donahue. “But we were not good.”
The Trooper’s sophomore campaign was a step backwards for Barnes and the program in general. The Red lost two more contests than the previous year, going 5-22 and winning only two Ivy League games. The team had problems with Donahue’s freshly installed offensive system and averaged only 57.7 points per game. Barnes saw his minutes drop as he shared time at the point with senior Wallace Prather ’02, and he missed four Ivy League games with an injury.
“He struggled with the new system; it was up and down,” said Donahue. “He struggled playing in it, and I struggled coaching it.”
After the disappointing season in which his stats dropped in every major category but free-throw percentage and rebounds, Barnes rededicated himself to his game. He used the summer to become stronger and faster, reporting to school determined to improve as a junior. The work paid off.
“It all clicked in last year,” said Donahue. “He was ready for more responsibility and we gave it to him. Before the Lafayette game, we told him to go run the show.”
Barnes responded to Donahue’s confidence by dropping a school-record 13 assists on the Leopards, leading the Red to an 80-73 victory. Barnes remained the starting point guard for the balance of the season and averaged 14.0 points per game.
This season, the Trooper is entrenched as the Red’s primary point guard, a position he loves.
“I feel the most comfortable at the one,” said Barnes. “It’s what I played all through high school and most of last year. It’s my natural position.”
At the point, Barnes will handle the ball more than any other player on the floor, allowing him to control the flow of the game and use his experience to create offensive chances.
“Being in control allows me to do more with my game and help out the team,” said Barnes.
Barnes expects to flourish in the new offensive set installed by Donahue after last season. Instead of playing normal Ivy basketball and walking the ball up and running half-court sets, the Red will employ a much more wide-open style. Donahue will ask Barnes to spread the floor a lot more and press the ball up in the new offense, which requires all five players to move without the ball and run out of motion sets.
“It’s very complicated,” said Donahue. “But I know what Ka’Ron can do.”
There have already been encouraging results since Donahue opened up the floor. Barnes and the Red ran roughshod over their opponents during the team’s trip to Australia in May. The Red averaged 115.3 points per game Down Under, with Barnes scoring 92 points over the four-game stretch.
“Back in high school, all we did was transition, it was a run-and-gun,” said Barnes. “I’m comfortable in the system; you can get a lot of easy baskets and put more pressure on the other team’s defense.”
Barnes is much more Jason Kidd than Stephan Marbury; while he doesn’t necessarily possess a “pass first” mentality, he knows that his first job is to get the best out of his teammates.
“You’ve got to know what certain people can do,” said Barnes. “I try to put people in a position to do what they’re best at [shooting jumpers, layups, post moves]; I want to make sure that everyone else is involved.”
“Ka’Ron is great at finding the gaps in the defense and getting me the ball,” said junior backcourt mate Cody Toppert.
Of course, Barnes is not at all timid to pull the trigger on his own, having attempted over 60 more field goals last season than any of his returning teammates.
“It depends on what happens in the game,” said Barnes. “If I feel like someone is having a bad night, I’ll start it off myself the best way I can and let everyone feed off me.”
In addition to running the offense, the leading returning scorer in the Ivy League is expected to match up every game against his opponent’s best shooter. Is Barnes, called by Donahue “one of the best defenders in the league,” up to the nightly challenge? Does he believe that he can shut down any guard in the country?
“Yes, yes I do,” said Barnes without a hint of laughter.
Such undeniable confidence stems from countless hours spent this summer improving his already stellar defensive skills. Recognized around the league for his abilities, the only knock on Barnes has been his inconsistent intensity.
“I’ve always felt like I could play D, like I could always rely on my fundamentals,” said Barnes. “But I needed to work on being more aggressive, to not back off and lose focus.
“I need to prove to myself that I can be more consistent. If they see me doing that, the other guys will step up, too. That’s all coming from better conditioning.”
The mantra for this year’s squad is, after all, “Bigger, Faster, Stronger,” an almost Olympian nod to the team’s improved athletic prowess. Barnes has led the way in correcting the physical deficiencies that marked last season.
“A lot of the time, we’d be smaller and quick, but they’d be much bigger and stronger. It’s really been a focal point for us — physically maturing our bodies.”
The extra muscle and stamina gained from the Friedman Strength and Conditioning Center will help the Red throughout the rigorous Ivy L
“Last year, we’d come out of the first game all beat up and tired,” said Barnes. “Most of those second games were pretty bad for us.”
Barnes realizes that the added conditioning and weight work will pay off down the line in those games that call for simply out-working the opponent.
“We’ve got to be able to shut down the other team, because there are nights when the shots won’t drop for us,” said Barnes. “When that happens, we have to work harder on the defensive end. Sometimes, we’ve got to get that ugly win.”
“I’m happy with my career here,” said Barnes. “I’ve overcome adversity and dealt with a lot of ups and downs.”
He certainly has no reason to have any regrets. Barnes needs only 148 points to become the 18th player in Cornell history to score 1,000 points in his career. He’s lit up Brown for a career-high 30 points and snatched 13 rebounds against last year’s Ivy champion, Penn. According to Donahue, he’s already “exceeded all my expectations as a player and as a person.”
All that is left for Barnes is an Ivy League title and an invitation to the Big Dance.
“After all the work that I’ve put in and the team has put in, it would be like a fairy tale, you know?” said Barnes excitedly. “That’s the way I want to finish up. Over and out, man. The way it should be.”
The Trooper won’t have it any other way.
Archived article by Per Ostman