Many reasons intense McKoy, aka ‘The sparkplug,’ left UVa for UNC

By R.L. Bynum

Of Carolina’s three transfers, Justin McKoy’s decision to leave Virginia after two seasons was the most surprising until you look closer at his situation.

Coaching changes came ahead of Brady Manek’s decision to leave Oklahoma and Dawson Garcia opting to leave Marquette. There was no coaching change for the Cavaliers and McKoy would have likely started at a post position this season.

There was the off-the-court factor of being closer to his home and family in Cary.

“It’s going to be awesome. There are some times the last two years I wasn’t able to go home. It was a little farther away,” said McKoy, adding that it will be much easier for his mom and siblings to attend games. “It will be a lot easier for them, which is probably the best part about that.”

His father, who was a Carolina fan, died of an autoimmune disease when McKoy was a toddler. On Twitter, his background photo is of his dad, and his bio is simply “RIP Dad (with a heart emoji) UNC hoops (with a basketball emoji).”

Justin McKoy said there were many reasons why he transferred from Virginia to UNC.

“I think my dad would be really proud of me,” said McKoy, who has a photo of his parents as the screen background on his phone. “He’s wearing a UNC hat. There’s just a reminder that he would be proud of me. And I always keep that with me every time. You know, my phone is something I look at every day, so it’s a nice reminder.”

In a recurring pattern when recruits explain why they’ve picked Carolina in recent months, Coach Hubert Davis is always a huge factor.

McKoy had already developed a relationship with Davis during his first recruiting process while he was at Panther Creek High School and was eager to play for the first-year head coach.

“Another part of it is just the amazing job Coach Davis did, not only as a recruiter, but as a coach,” McKoy said. “I mean he’s just a real people person. He connects with all his players. He’s just a special guy. You can sense that when you first meet him.”

There were plenty of basketball reasons to transfer.

The 6–8, 220-pound McKoy wasn’t excited about playing predominately inside, which was likely with the Cavaliers losing Sam Hauser and Jay Huff. He wondered if playing in Davis’ system with a faster pace would better prepare him for an NBA career.

“I was looking to play less on the block, 15 feet out where I know my skill set can expand,” said McKoy, who averaged 11.3 minutes and 3.5 points per game last season. “There’s nothing wrong with Virginia. I could have stayed and had a great career. But I just felt like it was time for a change-up. I needed a change of scenery.”


McKoy said there were no bad feelings from people with the Virginia program and that he had no personal problems with anybody there. He says he looks forward to catching up with his former coaches and teammates when UNC meets the Cavaliers next season.

When McKoy picked Virginia over North Carolina coming out of high school, the Tar Heels played the traditional two-post system. That’s changed now with Davis taking over the program.

McKoy praised UNC’s success with the previous system, noting the multiple national championships won with it. But he sees his game fitting in much better with the system the Tar Heels will use starting this season.

“Another reason why I’m here right now is Coach Davis wants to play more spread out,” McKoy said, pointing out that playing two big men often can clog up the driving lanes, making it harder for the guards.

He said that the skill sets of Armando Bacot, Manek and Dawson work well with that system.

“We space it out a lot more, which ultimately will help our guards play their game at a more efficient level and will allow the bigs to extend out a little bit more,” McKoy said. “There’s nothing wrong with how UNC played in the past, obviously. Great records. This new way is more fitting for our roster, and who we have. And that was one of the most attractive things about UNC.”

The tempo he got used to at Virginia wasn’t anything like what you see in the NBA.

“The way Coach Davis is playing is more of an NBA-style offense,” McKoy said. “I think it’ll not only prepare me, but everyone else as well, because they’re gonna have to get used to playing this style of offense. To be a swingman, we can go three, four, sometimes a mobile five.

“I feel like this is an awesome experience because it doesn’t really matter what position you play,” McKoy said. “It’s all pretty similar. If you’re running four out, 1, 2, 3 and 4 all are in the same kind of spots throughout the entire offense. It’ll be intriguing. I definitely think it will be a treat for Carolina fans.”

The area he improved the most during his two seasons in Charlottesville was defense, which is a hallmark of Coach Tony Bennett’s approach.

“Partially it’s the mindset, but part of it was you know you work on defense for almost an entire practice every day,” McKoy said. “Naturally, you’re going to get better. I sucked my first couple months there. You could argue my first year I wasn’t that greatest. But then coming in that second year, that mentality and everything, all the work came through. You started to see a lot of changes and changes for the better.”

What many fans may not know about McKoy, which Bacot pointed out last week, is that he’s a very high-energy, competitive player. So much so that Bacot calls McKoy “The sparkplug.”

Discovering that was Bacot’s biggest surprise when they started practicing together during the offseason.

“I feel like he brings a dynamic to the team that we haven’t had the last few years,” Bacot said. “Just like coming from UVa, just his defensive mindset. He’s probably the most competitive guy that’s been here since I’ve been here, other than probably Cole Anthony. Just like with his drive. He’s always trying to play players one on one. He’s just real competitive in everything we do. Just having a guy like that on our team definitely, I think, changes the dynamic.”

When Bacot’s comments were pointed out to McKoy, it brought a smile to his face because he knows it’s true.

“Those things are natural, to be a competitor, to be ultracompetitive,” McKoy said. “I want to win in everything, it doesn’t matter what it is. Sometimes we play pool in the lounge and I want to win every game. [Bacot] knows little stuff like that but it carries on to the court. It’s just natural.”

Naturally, he sounds like a player who will be a fan favorite.

ACC pool photo

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