CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Over two months removed from Armando Bacot setting his goal to “be nasty” at the ACC Tipoff, the big man thought he did just that Wednesday night.
"It was a chippy game but we kept fighting," Bacot said. "That was fun for us and we loved it."
Since sitting out against Virginia Tech, Bacot has helped the Tar Heels turn the season around following a historic four-game losing streak. Wednesday’s 80-76 win over Michigan in the Jumpman Invitational is UNC’s fourth-straight victory — a stretch in which Bacot has averaged over 22 points.
On Wednesday, Bacot recorded 11 field goals for the second matchup in a row, finishing with a game-high 26 points. This is Bacot’s 21st career game with 20 or more points and his sixth career game with 26 or more.
“The last four games, from an offensive standpoint, I think he has done not only better but more consistently," head coach Hubert Davis said. "He has worked really, really hard to get the ball where he wants it. That’s really important for him. If he can catch the ball where he wants it, he’s even more effective around the basket.”
Although Bacot started off the game with an emphatic dunk, he really took off after an altercation between Hunter Dickinson and Caleb Love that resulted in Class A technical fouls being issued against them, himself and Dug McDaniel.
On the big man’s next basket following the incident, he worked first-year forward Tarris Reed Jr. into the paint and finished with a reverse lay-up. Bacot celebrated by holding his hand towards the floor — indicating that Reed Jr. was “too small” — as he walked all the way back down the court.
The Preseason ACC Player of the Year put his improved ball-handling skills on display in plays like this throughout the game. Despite the Wolverines’ physicality, Bacot repeatedly backed defenders down into the paint until he could reach inside position.
“Coach (Davis) and the guards too, they want me to be aggressive and put pressure on the rim and try to score the ball,” Bacot said. “A lot of the times they were sending somebody baseline, so I wasn’t able to just do two dribbles and spin which I’d love to do. So I really just had to play with the defense and go middle then baseline, and just do different things like that to get to the spots I wanted to get to.”
Aside from his individual impact, Bacot’s recent success is a representation of the Tar Heels placing trust in their teammates and playing a more selfless style of basketball.
In UNC’s last four games, the Tar Heels have averaged 18 assists per game with an assist rate of about 51 percent. This is on par with KenPom’s Division I average and a drastic improvement from the Tar Heels’ previous games. At the time of North Carolina’s loss to Virginia Tech, the team was assisting on just 40 percent of its made field goals.
“When we came back from our road trips and we had a little bit time to practice, and I said we were going to look at things, and tweak and alter and pivot some things — one of the things we tweaked was, we have to feed (Bacot) the ball,” Hubert Davis said. “It has to go inside-out, as opposed to outside-in. That’s really energized him. When we come down the floor, our first, second and third option is to throw the ball down low to him.”
This was evident against Michigan, as six of UNC’s 13 assists on the game resulted in a basket by Bacot. The big man was fed for good reason, as he continued to find success in pick-and-roll action.
With just over two and a half minutes remaining, junior guard RJ Davis delivered a bounce pass between Dickinson and McDaniel. Bacot caught the pass in motion and weaved between multiple defenders to draw the and-one basket.
After hearing the whistle and watching the ball descend into the rim, Bacot turned to the spectators sitting on the baseline and stuck his tongue out.
In postgame interviews, Michigan head coach Juwan Howard said Bacot “had it going” on Wednesday night. Hubert Davis spoke about Bacot’s player of the year candidacy, saying, “Oh, it’s at that level.”
“I think Armando has been really, really good,” Hubert Davis said. “I think he’s been really good since the Georgia Tech game. I think he’s been at his best.”
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