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'We've been waiting for that': Elliot Cadeau breaks out for 10 assists in UNC's win over No. 10 Tennessee

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UNC first-year guard Elliot Cadeau (2) charges past defense during the men’s basketball game against Tennessee in the Dean Smith Center on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023. UNC beat Tennessee 100-92.

It took a little longer than Elliot Cadeau hoped to finally feel ready.

Yet the moment came in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. After North Carolina beat Arkansas in The Bahamas, Cadeau dined with his family at a local restaurant.

“‘I know I belong here — this is it,’” Michelle Cadeau recalled her son telling her. 

She paused.

“I think he showed that today.”

In No. 17 North Carolina’s 100-92 victory over No. 10 Tennessee, Cadeau had 10 assists and zero turnovers — the first Tar Heel to have both in a game since Marcus Paige in 2015 — in his first home start. Cadeau’s ball movement led the way for an astounding 61-point first-half performance, as North Carolina became the first team to score 60 points in a half against Tennessee since 2006. 

He’s tallied 21 assists — and only one turnover — in UNC’s last four games.

“Elliot has a gift and a talent to not only distribute and pass the ball but also distribute and pass a ball to a player where he can actually do something with it,” UNC head coach Hubert Davis said. “He’s just, instinctively, very special.”

About two weeks ago, those were the kind of words Cadeau said he “really needed to hear.” 

The first-year point guard started the season with eight turnovers to match eight assists in UNC’s first three games. He lacked his normal confidence. So two days after North Carolina’s win over Lehigh on Nov. 12 — a game in which Cadeau recorded seven points, two turnovers and no assists in 21 minutes — the ACC Preseason Rookie of the Year stopped by Davis’ office.

“He just told me that he believed in me and he wanted me to be free out there, play with no leash and just be myself,” Cadeau said. “That gave me a lot of confidence.”

Since then, Cadeau’s felt looser. He can hit the floor and “just not care about making mistakes.” He can think less and feel more.

And that confidence didn’t waver in the Tar Heels’ team’s trip to The Bahamas. At the Battle 4 Atlantis, playing against Villanova and Arkansas —  UNC’s toughest opponents pre-Tennessee — Cadeau recorded a combined 10 points, eight assists and zero turnovers.

Nothing crazy. Nothing to write home about. But Cadeau couldn’t help but notice how comfortable he felt. 

There wasn’t an exact moment that it clicked, more of a sense.

Following two “spirited” practices on Monday and Tuesday, Cadeau’s game seemed to flow easily against a Tennessee team that Hubert Davis labeled “real.” In statistical terms, the Volunteers entered Wednesday as real as it gets — No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. 

Despite Tennessee’s defensive prowess, Cadeau allowed the Tar Heels to go from taking good shots to great ones. He moved the ball from one end of the court to the other and pinpointed open shooters with near-perfect timing.

“I know that when I’m open, he’s going to hit me,” junior forward Harrison Ingram said. “We know that when Armando’s open he’s going to hit us and we know he’s not going to force too many shots and I feel like that’s one thing that’s changed a lot from last year to this year.”

To be specific, the Tar Heels' 12 assists per game last season was uncharacteristically low, good for third worst in the ACCThe North Carolina offense ranked 310th out of 366 teams in Division I in assist rate per KenPom. The most assists a Tar Heel recorded in a game last season was Caleb Love’s seven in an overtime win against Ohio State.

And while senior guard RJ Davis called Cadeau’s performance on Wednesday “unbelievable” and his assist-to-turnover ratio odee,” it's nothing new for the first-year point guard. 

“Um, nothing really stood out,” he said nonchalantly when asked to select a favorite play of the game. “Nah, I don’t think there was any crazy stuff.”

And as for Michelle Cadeau's thoughts?

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What you saw today: That’s Elliot," she said. "We’ve been waiting for that. That’s him.”

@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com


Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.