Armando Bacot’s Progress as a Passer Boosts UNC

CHAPEL HILL, NC — The progress hasn’t been altogether linear or apparent, but in the space of one segment covering fewer than 3½ minutes of game time against Notre Dame, the strides North Carolina big man Armando Bacot has made in combating opposing double- teams were as evident as some of the skip passes he whipped out of the post Saturday.

There was Bacot in the first half, trapped by the Fighting Irish near the corner, unable to find a teammate and forced to call timeout, with little recourse other than to eat the possession and cough up a turnover.

Soon after, Bacot was doubled again on a touch in the post. He didn’t get stuck this time, hitting the cutting Puff Johnson moving along the baseline instead of a turnaround bucket in the lane, one of the four assists he distributed during the Tar Heels’ 81-64 win at the Smith Center.

“There’s growth there,” UNC coach Hubert Davis said, noting how Bacot is reading and navigating such situations, with the opposition committing an extra defender down low. “We’re getting better and Armando’s getting better at recognizing when it’s coming, where it’s coming.”

On another day when the 6-foot-11 Bacot’s trademark strengths were on display — he scored 21 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, his 18th career game with at least 20 and 10 in those categories and his fifth straight 20-point effort, while also climbing past Sam Perkins in the UNC record book — so too were his in-season improvements. Right from the start.

On the Tar Heels’ first possession against Notre Dame, Bacot’s skip pass to the corner set up Caleb Love for a clean 3-point look that the UNC guard buried. The Tar Heels led 3-0 in a matter of 15 seconds, and were on the way to securing their sixth victory in the last seven games.

Bacot followed the five assists he handed out during Wednesday night’s win over Wake Forest with four more here Saturday. That’s a combined nine assists in back-to-back outings, and 12 assists across the last three games for Bacot. No other UNC player has delivered more, although guard RJ Davis has matched Bacot’s two- and three-game assist numbers in this stretch.

Don’t call him the next Nikola Jokic just yet, the brilliant Denver Nuggets star big man and two-time NBA Most Valuable Player. But don’t consider Bacot a shrinking liability in the face of defenses and double-teams aimed at reducing his impact, either.

“He knows that double teams are going to come,” RJ Davis said Saturday, “and he knows that he’s a threat down there, so he’s going to be facing about two or three guys. He’s willing to pass the ball and make plays for us, and he’s been doing a great job, especially nine assists the past two games.

“That’s been an underrated part of his game. Even this summer, I kind of noticed it a little bit. He was making little quick passes that may not go noticed, but when you’re playing it’s like, ‘wow, Armando just made that pass.’ So I think that kind of just carried over into the season.”

UNC big man Armando Bacot passes out of a Notre Dame double-team on Saturday. (Photo: Jim Hawkins / Inside Carolina, 247Sports)

Not initially. Across the first eight games of the season, Bacot had just nine assists against 24 turnovers. He said Saturday he has tried to operate with more patience on post-ups when other teams send additional defenders in his direction, and execute simpler passes rather than some of the “home-run plays” he sought. Bacot said UNC assistant coach Sean May has helped him develop a better understanding and balance in that area.

He has poured practice time and pregame study into the process. Bacot said he has taken to further examining video clips of the Tar Heels’ approaching opponents and the defensive strategies they typically deploy against big men in his mold.

“I watch a lot of film on who we’re playing and kind of just see their tendencies and how they guard other bigs that play like me,” Bacot said Saturday. “So I knew coming into this game, they’d be coming from the baseline, and I kind of knew the rotations off the ball. So I think that really allowed me to be able to kind of assess how they went about that, and kind of allowed me to know what I need to do.”

Bacot hauled in his 13th rebound, a defensive board with 4:09 remaining against Notre Dame, to move ahead of Perkins for second place all-time in UNC history. Bacot’s 1,169 career rebounds are 50 shy of Tyler Hansbrough’s school record.

Then on the Tar Heels’ ensuing possession on the offensive end, Bacot’s cross-court feed to RJ Davis, another deft find on a skip pass out of the post, allowed the UNC guard to set his feet and nail an open catch-and- shoot 3-pointer for a 73-58 lead.

Notre Dame threw bigger bodies at Bacot during the second half, bringing 6-9, 268-pound wide body Dom Campbell off the bench and using 6-9 Matt Zona more as compared to the first half, when 6-10 starter Nate Laszewski had the primary defensive assignment on Bacot and the Irish rotated guards such as 6-5 Cormac Ryan and 6-6 Dane Goodwin to create their double-teams.

“We’ve worked on it, because at the beginning of the year, it was a little shaky,” Hubert Davis said Saturday. “Every day at practice over the last two weeks, we’ve worked on it.

“We’ve worked on it to get him more comfortable when the double-team comes. We’ve also worked with him in terms of getting him more comfortable where it comes from, whether it comes from the top or the baseline. And then we’ve gotten him more comfortable at where his outlets are, where the guys are going to be, so that when a double-team comes, he knows exactly where his teammates are going to be so he can pass the ball out of the post.”

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