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UNC basketball’s Armando Bacot hopes changed game leads to elusive success

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot (5) slams in two during the second half of UNC’s 81-73 victory over Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, March 11, 2021.

North Carolina’s Armando Bacot (5) slams in two during the second half of UNC’s 81-73 victory over Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals of the ACC Men’s Basketball Tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday, March 11, 2021.

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The North Carolina that men’s basketball coach Hubert Davis experienced as a player is still a very foreign concept to what foward/center Armando Bacot has endured in his two years in Chapel Hill.

Davis’ played on teams that won regular season and ACC tournament championships. He played in a Final Four.

Bacot played on a team his freshman year ravished by injuries that had the dubious distinction of being the only losing season on coach Roy Williams’ resume. His sophomore year earned another infamous honor in being the only team coached by Williams’ to lose in the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

The third year for Bacot has got to be the charm, right?

“One of the things that I’ve talked about Armando is a burning desire for him to experience. the Carolina that I experienced,” Davis said. “I want him to be in big games and winning big games in big-time situations for him to come through. I feel like the last couple of years he hadn’t been able to experience that, especially on a consistent basis.”

Bacot was the leading scorer (12.3 per game ) and rebounder (7.8 per game) for the Tar Heels last season on a team that had plenty of frontcourt options. He entered his name into the NBA draft to gauge interest, but ultimately, Bacot said he returned to school to have the kind of season that’s revered in Carolina basketball history.

“I want to one day to be able to bring my family back and say I left the impact here,” Bacot said. “I want to leave a legacy here and that’s one of the biggest things since I’ve been little that I wanted to do. Just being able to come back and get a chance to do that as a blessing and something that I’m ready for.”

Bacot was the only frontcourt player to return from last season. Garrison Brooks took his extra senior year to transfer to Mississippi State. Day’Ron Sharpe was taken in the first round of the NBA draft and will start his rookie season with the Brooklyn Nets. Walker Kessler transferred to Auburn, despite Davis’ public appeal to get him to stay.

On the current roster, only senior wing Leaky Black has played in more games at Carolina than Bacot.

“Mando’s been a great leader for us, his maturity is through the roof, he’s able to lead the guys and help us out when needed,” sophomore guard R.J. Davis said. “We all gel off each other’s energy and I feel like Mando has done a great job so far as upperclassmen and as a leader.”

Bacot will have to be more consistent than he was last season. He could have a dominant performance, like his 20-point, 15-rebound outing against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament. But he’d also have games in which he seemed disengaged, like the loss at Clemson when he had just one field goal attempt and finished with 1 point.

Bacot hasn’t always been the most self-motivated player. Williams would often have to cajole him before games — usually involving the word “soft” — to prompt him into playing at a high level.

Williams, in speaking to the News & Observer about how he’ll maintain relationships with the current players now that he’s retired, said, “I still told Armando I’m going to chew him out if I don’t like what he’s doing.”

What the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Richmond, Va., native is doing will have a much different look than how he’s played the previous two seasons. Carolina added three transfers in the frontcourt in Brady Manek (Oklahoma), Justin McKoy (Virginia) and Dawson Garcia (Marquette) who can all shoot from 3-point range.

In Davis’ system, Bacot and the other bigs will be operating in space more as opposed to primarily only being in the post. He expects to score in more ways starting with taking opponents off the dribble more.

“Obviously, the new type of offense he’s running and the different type of plays, he wants us to all be able to shoot and extend the floor and not limit our games,” Bacot said. “So that’s something I’ve been working on every day with the coaches and just on my own too just to be able to show more than just posting up to allow free lanes for the guards and just open up the offense more.”

Bacot drastically improved his play on the blocks from freshman to his sophomore year, improving his field goal percentage from 45.9 percent in his first year to 62.8 percent last season.

But he knows to make it in the NBA, he’ll have to show some range on his jump shot. He’s only taken one 3-pointer in two seasons at UNC (and he missed that one.) But don’t be surprised to see him pull up from deep this season. It’s an added wrinkle to his game that he’s been working on this summer.

“He’s worked so hard on his outside shot, even all the way out to 3-point range, and that’s something that we’re going to encourage,” Davis said. “…My hope is from an offensive standpoint, we won’t go away from what made him successful last year, but he will show more versatility in what he can do on all offensive end.”

If Bacot is able to do that, he just may leave the kind of legacy that he envisions.

“My first two years, I really haven’t won anything really,” Bacot said. “That’s the main thing for me, I just want to be able to say I won something at Carolina.”

C.L. Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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