Feeding ball to healthy Bacot frequently has UNC on impressive run

By R.L. Bynum

North Carolina learned a lot from a four-game losing streak that ramped up the frustrations and turned the Tar Heels from the No. 1 team to an unranked group looking for answers.

All along, a couple of the big answers were there. Get Armando Bacot healthy and gear the offense around getting the preseason ACC Player of the Year and AP All-American the ball down low frequently.

With Bacot playing like one of the best players in the country, the Tar Heels are progressing toward being more like the team national observers expected when they tapped them as the No. 1 team.

Bacot dominated Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson while scoring 26 points in Wednesday’s 80–76 victory over the Wolverines in Charlotte at the Jumpman Invitational. Bacot beat Dickinson repeatedly off the dribble and was more physical.

UNC (9–4, 1–1 ACC) takes a four-game win into next Friday’s noon game at Pittsburgh (ACC Network).

Bacot wasn’t himself for most of the loss at Indiana (when he still was bothered by a sprained right ankle) and missed the defeat at Virginia Tech with an AC joint sprain in his right shoulder. Since then, the shoulder has improved, and Coach Hubert Davis has altered the Tar Heels’ offensive approach, making changes when he was finally able to get in a few practices after being on the road for so long.

“One of the things that we tweaked was we have to feed him the ball,” Davis said. “It has to go inside-out, as opposed to outside-in. When we come down the floor, the first, second and third options are to throw the ball to him. He’s playing extremely well.”

During the four-game win streak, Bacot is averaging 22.3 points per game, including 28 in the 89–84 overtime victory Saturday in New York over Ohio State.

Among the starters, it’s not a coincidence that the percentage of shots from Bacot has been the highest all season in the last four games.

Bacot got 23.2% of the shots among the starters in the opener against UNCW and 27.0% against College of Charleston in the second game. After that, Bacot didn’t get more than 27% of the starter shots until the last four games — 32.7% against Georgia Tech, 27.3% vs. The Citadel, 27.9 against Ohio State and 27.7% against Michigan.

Carolina is 7–0 when Bacot gets at least 21% of the starter shots.

“He has not only been better consistently, he has really, really worked hard to get the ball where he wants it,” Davis said. “That’s really important for him. When he gets the ball where he wants it, he’s even more effective around the basket.”   

The shot distribution was a big reason the Tar Heels’ fortunes weren’t better at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland. Bacot got only six shots each in the first two games (11.5% of the starter shots against Portland and 13.6% in the loss to Iowa State), and got off only 12 in the four-overtime loss to Alabama (14.2%).

“Coaches want me to be aggressive and really just put pressure on the rim and try to score the ball,” Bacot said after Wednesday’s win over Michigan. “A lot of times, they were sending somebody baseline, so I wasn’t able to just do two dribbles and spin, which I would love to do. So I really had to kind of play with the defense and go middle and then baseline, things like that, to get to the slots I like to get to get as low as possible.”


He’s getting better chances in transition in recent games as well because Carolina altered its approach, and he’s running directly to the basket, which is giving him the ball in a better position to score.

“I think Armando has been really good since the Georgia Tech game,” Davis said. “I think he’s been at his best. In the last four games and the second half against College of Charleston, I thought he was really special.”

In that 102–86 victory Nov. 12 against College of Charleston, Bacot was 10 of 13 from the floor for 28 points after a scoreless first half with only one shot. It may have been a hint of what was to come a few games later — he went from getting 4% of the starter shots in the first half to 32% in the second half.

“The way that he’s playing, it’s with a hunger and thirst,” Davis said. “Not only is he scoring, he’s really working hard and getting the ball in the right position. And he’s been really special, not just offensively but on the defensive end as well.”

With Carolina running the offense through Bacot, the volume of 3-point attempts hasn’t changed much, but there are fewer perimeter attempts early in the shot clock. The highest volume of 3-point attempts has come in two of the wins in the current streak — 15 of 31 (48.4%) against The Citadel and 6 of 28 (21.4%) against Ohio State.

In the win over Georgia Tech, though, UNC was 3 of 13 (23.1%) with the second-fewest 3-point attempts this season (the fewest was 10 in the opener against UNCW).

Bacot’s success has opened up driving lanes for RJ Davis and Caleb Love, and led to UNC not being so dependent on ball screens as earlier this season. Love, shooting 28.6% from 3-point range, has arguably been more dangerous driving to the basket than taking perimeter shots.

There’s no doubt that success for Carolina for the rest of the season will depend heavily on Bacot staying healthy and getting the ball frequently in the post.

Bacot shots game-by-game

OpponentBacot shotsPercentage
of starter shots
James Madison1121.10%19
Iowa State613.60%13
Georgia Tech1632.70%21
The Citadel927.30%14
Ohio State1927.90%28

UNC statistics

(current ranking)
28FridayW, 101–40Johnson C. Smith HomeExhibition
7MondayW, 69–56UNCWHome1–0
11FridayW, 102–86College of CharlestonHome2–0
15TuesdayW, 72–66Gardner-WebbHome3–0
20SundayW, 80–64James MadisonHome4–0
Phil Knight Invitational
24ThursdayW, 89–81First round: PortlandPortland5–0
25FridayL, 70–65Semifinals:
No. 11
Iowa State
27SundayL, 103–101,
4 OTs
No. 3 Alabama
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
30WednesdayL, 77–65 No. 18 IndianaBloomington, Ind.5–3
4SundayL, 80–72 Virginia TechBlacksburg, Va.5–4,
0–1 ACC
10SaturdayW, 75–59Georgia TechHome6–4,
1–1 ACC
13TuesdayW, 100–67The CitadelHome7–4
CBS Sports Classic
17SaturdayW, 89–84, OTOhio StateNew York8–4
Jumpman Invitational
21WednesdayW, 80–76MichiganCharlotte9–4
30 Friday L, 76–74PittsburghPittsburgh9–5,
1–2 ACC
4WednesdayW, 88–79Wake ForestHome10–5,
2–2 ACC
7SaturdayW, 81–64Notre DameHome11–5,
3–2 ACC
10TuesdayL, 65–58No. 8 VirginiaCharlottesville11–6,
3–3 ACC
14SaturdayW, 80–59LouisvilleLouisville, Ky.12–6,
4–3 ACC
17TuesdayW, 72–64Boston CollegeHome13–6,
5–3 ACC
21SaturdayW, 80–69No. 22 N.C. StateHome14–6,
6–3 ACC
24TuesdayW, 72–68SyracuseSyracuse, N.Y.15–6,
7–3 ACC
1WednesdayL, 65–64PittsburghHome15–7,
7–4 ACC
4SaturdayL, 63–57 DukeDurham15–8,
7–5 ACC
7Tuesday7 p.m.Wake ForestWinston-SalemESPN
11Saturday2 p.m.ClemsonHome ESPN2
13Monday7 p.m.No. 19 MiamiHomeESPN
19Sunday1 p.m.No. 22 N.C. StateRaleighESPN
22Wednesday9 p.m.Notre DameSouth Bend, Ind.ESPN or ESPN2
25Saturday6 or 8No. 8 VirginiaHomeESPN
27Monday7 p.m.Florida StateTallahassee, Fla.ESPN
ACC Tournament
If tickets for home games are available, you can purchase them here.
ACCN means the game airs on ACC Network.

Photo via @UNC_Basketball

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