By Adam Lucas
Maybe we take Armando Bacot for granted.
Going into Saturday morning’s game against Notre Dame, it felt like Bacot was having a pretty good season. Then you checked the numbers.
The big man is merely leading the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring, rebounding, and offensive rebounding, and he is fourth in field goal percentage. In other words, ACC Player of the Year type numbers.
Then he went out against the Fighting Irish and showed exactly how he’s doing it. This wasn’t one of those games where Bacot hung around the basket, outworked everyone for a few offensive rebounds, and scored on some stick-backs. This was a nice window into what his complete arsenal has become. All he did was score a game-high 21 points to go with his game-high 13 rebounds, statistics that suggest exactly what you suspected while watching the game—Bacot was the best player on the court.
That’s something the Tar Heels sometimes forgot during the first few weeks of the season, including back-to-back games against Portland and Iowa State when he took a total of just 12 shots.
Over the first eight games of the season—the stretch before he missed the Virginia Tech game with an injury, a contest that is starting to feel like the dividing line of this season—he averaged 9.6 shots per game as Carolina went 5-3. But in the last seven games, he averaged 14.4 field goal attempts per contest, including 17 against Notre Dame. Not coincidentally, the Tar Heels are 6-1 in those games.
“I’ve been taking a lot of shots,” Bacot said on the Tar Heel Sports Network after the game. “And when I take a lot of shots, I make a good amount, too.”
He’s right, you know. Much like his game, it’s not that complicated: when he takes more, he makes more.
With 21 on Saturday, he has now scored at least 20 points in five straight games for the first time in his career. What’s the context for that statistic? Well, Tyler Hansbrough did it. But here’s a list of other players from the Roy Williams era who did not do it: Marcus Paige, Tyler Zeller, Sean May, Brice Johnson, Harrison Barnes. Those are five of the most consistent, reliable scorers in the modern Carolina era; none were this consistent.
“I’ve been working really hard to get the ball where I want it,” Bacot said. “Caleb, RJ and everyone are doing a good job of getting me the ball and playing through me.”
“He’s working harder and he’s playing harder,” Hubert Davis told Jones Angell on the THSN. “He’s really running the floor a lot better. In transition, he’s getting a lot of points on deep post catches. In the half court, he’s doing his work early. He’s working extremely hard to catch the ball where he wants to, and when he catches it there, he’s very effective at scoring, whether it’s making the shot or drawing a foul and getting to the free throw line.”
Bacot almost seemed to enjoy it when Notre Dame inserted overwhelmed freshman Dom Campbell, whose primary move seemed to be playing as physically as possible. Bacot almost single-handedly fouled Campbell out after seven minutes of playing time, scoring over and through him virtually at will. “I don’t see too many guys as strong as me,” Bacot said. “It was a lot of fun to play against a physical guy.” Perhaps the most telling stat of the day: Bacot drew seven fouls, and the entire rest of the Carolina team combined drew seven fouls.
Notre Dame’s inability to match up defensively with Bacot required them to use frequent double teams. That was when he was able to showcase perhaps the most improved area of his game. Turnovers were a problem in that opening eight-game stretch, as he committed 27 of them. But he has just 11 since then, a testament both to where the Tar Heels are getting him the ball and how he is handling the traffic.
On Saturday, he adeptly dribbled out of double teams on at least two separate occasions, once finding RJ Davis for an open jumper and next feeding Puff Johnson—who had one of his best games off the Carolina bench—for a three-pointer.
As Bacot’s profile increases, so will the frequency of the double teams—including, of course, Tuesday night in Charlottesville, where the double is a primary facet of Virginia’s defense. Even now, as a fourth-year player who can reasonably dream of seeing his jersey in the Smith Center rafters, he’s still getting better.
“He’s gotten better at handling the double team,” Davis said. “He’s worked in practice to get more comfortable with making a pass out of the double team, and he did a great job of that today. At the beginning of the year, I don’t think he could have made some of those passes. “
He’s also improved defensively. It was Bacot’s ability to stay with the smaller Irish players on the perimeter that enabled Davis to make a game-changing defensive tweak, as he adjusted mid-game and instructed the Tar Heels to switch everything one through five. After Notre Dame started the game getting some good looks, that switch slowed down their offense, with Bacot either shadowing Nate Laszewski–who has been a tough cover for Carolina in recent meetings–or staying with a smaller ball-handler long enough to force a bad shot.
In addition to his improvement, he’s still rewriting some important Carolina records. Saturday’s win saw Bacot move past Sam Perkins into second place on the all-time Tar Heel rebounding list. He now trails Tyler Hansbrough by just 50 boards (both Hansbrough and Perkins required more career games to reach their totals than Bacot will).
When that total was relayed to him, he nonchalantly replied, “Should be able to do that in three or four games.”
The remarkable thing about the statement was that it seemed completely reasonable.