At the end of his junior year at Trinity Episcopal School, Armando Bacot found himself in unfamiliar territory: the losing end of a scoreboard.
His basketball team trailed Bishop O’Connell by over 30 points near the end of the second quarter of the Virginia Independent School Athletic Association Division I state semifinals. On the brink of elimination, Bacot shouldered the burden and erupted for 37 second-half points en route to scoring 45 of his team’s 71 points that evening, but his Titans still fell short by double digits.
“Coach, I’m so sorry I didn’t do more for us to win that game,” he told head coach Rick Hamlin after the loss. “I didn’t realize we were that far behind or I would’ve played better in the first half.”
For the majority of his playing days, that’s been the theme of Bacot’s career. It was never a question of if the abilities, talent or determination were there for the five-star center prospect. The biggest obstacle has simply been his ability to consistently tap into it 100 percent of the time.
That narrative began to follow him around, glued to his name, by the end of his first year at UNC. After all, his debut season featured the highs of 23 points and 12 rebounds against Oregon and etching his name into record books next to Antawn Jamison's, but also reached the lows of shooting 2-14 against Wofford and fighting through “nagging” injuries.
Now, with the disappointment of last year’s 14-19 record behind him going into the 2020-2021 season, Bacot is applying an “iron sharpens iron” mentality to his complicated situation — eight new teammates and much less job security in the post during a pandemic — to capitalize on his potential on and off the court.
‘A lesson I don’t think he’d be here without’
Hamlin’s introduction to Bacot was a few years before the future Tar Heel ever donned a Trinity Episcopal jersey.
Style Weekly, a local magazine in the Richmond, Virginia, area, had announced its 15 Under 15, an annual celebration of children involved in the community who were mostly teenagers. A ninth grade student of Hamlin’s was named to the list for starting his own makeshift business and donating some proceeds to charity.
While attending the ceremony, the name Armando Bacot piqued his interest. He looked up to see an 11- or 12-year-old Bacot, already over 6 feet tall, another honoree that day.
Hamlin kept the name in the back of his mind, and a few years later, after a narrow win over a rival school, he ran into Bacot on his way out of the gym. The highly touted seventh grader made an informal commitment to come play for Trinity Episcopal for his eight grade season.
“That was really the big win that night,” Hamlin said. “It felt like that was our reward for beating our rival.”
But high school wasn’t always a cakewalk for Bacot.
Hamlin started the young center out on JV, insisting he prove himself and earn a spot on the school’s varsity team. Naturally, Bacot felt disappointed, but his father bought into the idea, reassured him to trust the process and reminded him to just compete.
And that’s exactly what the young man did.
“He’s O.G. competitive,” Bacot’s cousin Jaylyn Lomax said. “He just loves to compete. Even if we’re doing like a 3-point shootout in the back or something, he always wants to win.”
Initially, Bacot struggled a bit with his footwork and defending opponents away from the basket in his first year on varsity as a ninth grader until he rose to the occasion when his team faced St. Anne's-Belfield School in the league tournament.
In his first year on varsity, Bacot matched up against former Duke Blue Devil Javin DeLaurier, a senior at the time, in the paint and went “toe-to-toe” with the big man in the eyes of his coach.
“That was the first time we were like, ‘He could be pretty damn good,’” Hamlin said.
Bacot filled the next three years — two in Richmond and one at IMG Academy in Florida — with similar big games, putting his best foot forward ever since he found out he’d be on JV.
The day Armando committed to UNC, his father called Hamlin.
“He said, ‘I want to thank you because him being on JV that year taught him a lesson I don’t think he’d be here without,’” Hamlin said.
Measuring up to expectations
His first year in Chapel Hill was a shock to Bacot’s system.
Coming into the season, Bacot was expected to pair with star point guard recruit Cole Anthony to emerge as a dynamic combo on a UNC team filled with question marks. But like every other aspect of last season, things failed to go according to plan.
“Rebounding-wise, he was OK last year,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said in a press conference last month. “I think the biggest problem he had was finishing plays around the basket and staying out of foul trouble and staying out of the little nagging injuries.”
For every positive, like tying Jamison’s 1995-1996 record for most rebounds by a first-year, there was a countermeasure, like his stat line against Florida State that included six points, six rebounds and three turnovers in 26 minutes.
Rumblings of inconsistent play steadily became the narrative that Bacot couldn’t avoid by the end of the year.
“Yeah, I feel like it’s fair because I had a lot of huge games where it looked like 'woah' and also some games where I wasn’t that good,” Bacot said. “Yeah, that’s fair to say.”
While the Tar Heels’ tumultuous 2019-2020 campaign flamed out, he stepped back and evaluated how he could improve. He leaned on senior forward Garrison Brooks, along with former Tar Heel stars like Ed Davis and Tyler Hansbrough — specifically frontcourt guys who stayed at UNC for more than a year to get the blueprint for a successful jump from first-year to sophomore.
Away from the court, he surveyed the country’s political and social climates amid COVID-19, examining how he could make an impact in Chapel Hill in his personal life.
He took to social media to remind his followers about the importance of voter turnout and marched on Franklin Street this summer with hundreds of others in a Black Lives Matter peaceful protest for social justice.
“Just having a huge platform, I knew I wanted to be able to use it to educate people and spread the voices of the unheard,” Bacot said. “I definitely felt like it was an obligation on my part because so many people follow me. It was just like, ‘Why not use it for something good?’”
But now, as the season approaches and five-star big men Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler arrive in Chapel Hill to make their presences known, he’s turned (at least some of) his attention back towards basketball.
Exhibit A: Rather than shut them out in hopes of gaining more minutes, he's working with the talented incoming class to teach them how to avoid the pitfalls of “being inconsistent, just taking days for granted” that he fell into the year prior.
Whether he’s playing in the Dean E. Smith Center or serving as a voice for the communities he represents, Bacot is primed to reach his full potential in the next six months and beyond.
“(I just want) to improve on everything, all my weaknesses from last year, be a leader and win,” he said.
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