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Cormac Ryan looks to light a fire under the UNC men's basketball team

UNC graduate guard Cormac Ryan (3) shoots a three-pointer at the men’s basketball scrimmage versus St. Augustine’s on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 in the Dean E. Smith Center. The Tar Heels won 117-53.

After any given practice, Cormac Ryan can be found on the court of the Dean E. Smith Center, shooting spot shots.

He has a quota. When he doesn’t meet that quota, he gets angry. Ryan doesn’t like to lose, even in a competition against himself. 

Senior guard RJ Davis remembered a certain post-practice session where the graduate transfer failed to meet his self-imposed standards. As a result, he said Ryan grabbed a basketball and punted it into the stands — almost up to the ceiling of the arena. 

According to his former teammate at Notre Dame, forward Matt Zona, Ryan is the “ultra-competitor.” 

He doesn’t settle and demands the most out of everyone around him. As a sixth-year, 25-year-old, two-time transfer, Ryan brings leadership, experience and all-around skill to the UNC men’s basketball team — all stemming from his cutthroat attitude on the court. 

“There’s no holding back,” Ryan said. “Because all that’s doing is doing your teammate a disservice if you’re not going your hardest.” 

‘A different type of fire’ 

Ryan’s antics aren’t limited to outside of practice. Head coach Hubert Davis recalled an instance when the New York City native got kneed in the thigh during a scrimmage and then knocked over a water cooler.

“I like that emotion,” he said. “He kicked it and then two seconds later he came back on the floor and knocked down a three, so it is what it is — that’s just his personality and I love it.” 

Ryan is relentless in his search for perfection. He wants to win, badly, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Last season at Notre Dame, he averaged 12.3 points per game and recorded 41 steals and 13 blocks. In the Fighting Irish’s 2022 first round NCAA tournament win over No. 6-seed Alabama, Ryan made seven of nine from three and racked up 29 points.

Armando Bacot said this type of relentlessness has been missing from the Tar Heels. 

“I mean it's a different type of fire,” Bacot said. “It's something we haven't seen since [I've] been here — guys that really care about winning. So I feel like that, it may sound a little crazy, to have a guy punt the ball, but sometimes you need stuff like that to kind of get the team going.”

Bacot said this year’s practices have been “bloodbaths.”

In one scrimmage, Bacot said he ran through Ryan after being hit with a hard screen on the previous play. He joked he “probably broke [Ryan’s] ribs.” 

On the next play, Ryan was right back all over him, trying to block him again.

“Armando can’t break my ribs, as big as he is,” Ryan said of the moment. “I’m a little too tough for that.“

Guarding the best man on the team 

In 2018, when Ryan was a senior in high school, his Milton Academy coach Lamar Reddicks told The Boston Globe that Ryan was “better when he covers the best player on the other team.” 

That still applies today. 

“I've felt that way my entire career,” Ryan said. “So I’m always up for the challenge. I always want to guard the best guy on the other team, and I take defense very personally.”

Most big-time scorers don’t care as much about defending, but Ryan is an exception. His competitiveness won’t let anything slide — something that was showcased last year when he faced off against North Carolina in the Smith Center.

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With just over seven minutes left in the second half, Ryan ran up behind Puff Johnson, who had the ball, and attempted to smack it out of his hands, causing both of them to fall to the ground. 

Caleb Love immediately came over, getting into Ryan’s face and forcing an altercation that caused both teams to have to be separated on the court. The moment stands as a testament to how hard Ryan is willing to go on defense — no matter the cost.

“I play hard,” he said of the incident. “I play hard, stuff happens in a basketball game. It just goes to show you life’s funny in that way, and here I am sitting here as a Tar Heel.”

A Tar Heel that punts balls out of frustration, kicks water coolers in practice and gets into altercations during games. But also a Tar Heel that gives it his all on every single play.

Some might see his behavior as divisive, but his teammates view it as a strength. 

After RJ Davis saw Ryan kick the ball into the rafters, he sat back and reflected on the moment.

“I’m like, ‘I never seen that before,' so it definitely shocked me,” he said. “But you can just see that he wants to be great, so I think that's where that competitiveness comes from.”


@dthsports |

Gwen Peace

Gwen Peace is the 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer. Gwen is a sophomore pursuing a double major in media and journalism and peace, war and defense.