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UNC Basketball: Armando Bacot season review

The freshman had an inconsistent, but productive, season.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed this morning’s piece by Akil, Tar Heel Blog is using this week (and the overall lull in the sports world) to provide a player-by-player end-of-season review. Similar to what we did with last summer’s player preview series. If you want to see where we were right or wrong before the season began, you can find those articles here. I’ve re-read some over the course of the year, and it’s certainly a mix of embarrassingly wrong takes and impressive Nostradamus-ing. Alas, I digress.

This afternoon’s focus is Armando Bacot. Despite some frustrations throughout the year, the big man had quite the successful freshman campaign. Expectations from most were borderline unreasonable for the incoming McDonald’s All-American. The excitement of adding a true big man likely shaded some perceptions of his final production, but Bacot was mostly exactly what should have been expected. For fun, here is what I wrote before the season.

Adept at keeping the ball high, Bacot is skilled at the rim with soft hands and an arsenal of post moves. If the ball is anywhere near his body, Bacot is going to grab it. With above-average court vision, he’ll also be more than just a low-post scoring or rebounding threat…

…he lacks overwhelming athleticism and has seen his body and conditioning ebb and flow. More finesse than power and dependent on positioning rather than brute force, he’ll have a steeper learning curve than some of his peers as he figures how his game translates to the next level. While he doesn’t shy away from contact and isn’t afraid to attack the rim, he won’t go through a defender either. Young big men in college often struggle with the physicality and pace of play, and Bacot won’t be an exception.

Much of that came to fruition. Our film review against Pittsburgh and Syracuse showed a few examples of his struggles. Often intent on spinning, dribbling, or hesitating, Bacot struggled finishing at the rim, specifically through contact. When he wasn’t losing the ball on the way up, he channeled the Kennedy Meeks method of grabbing two or three of his own missed shots before scoring.

That’s partially why it seemed a 15 and 12 performance (UCLA) was often followed up with a 2 and 6 clunker (Yale). A untimely swoon where he didn’t reach double-digit points in a 5-game, 14-day span late in the ACC season wasn’t the best moment for a freshman slump either. The Heels went 2-3 in that stretch, dropping one possession games to Virginia and Notre Dame in the process, further hampering the perception of his overall output.

Even with those struggles, Bacot still finished sixth in the ACC in rebounds per game and 10th among all freshmen in scoring average. His stats were actually among the best for a freshman post player in Chapel Hill over the past decade. Some of that is attributed to capitalizing on increased playing time due to injuries. In his preview, I made this prediction for his final numbers.

…I freely admit I’m not near as high on Bacot’s potential for this year. A more realistic ceiling is 14-16 mpg and an inconsistent 7 and 6, though that prediction relies on the health of the other Tar Heels. Another season ending injury to Manley could increase Bacot’s playing time.

Turns out, that was pretty close to reality. Check it out. (Note: All stats are courtesy of Sports-Reference.)

2019-20: 32 games, 24.5 mpg, 9.6ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.1 bpg, 46.9 FG%, 64.5 FT%
2019-20 (ACC): 19 games, 9.7ppg, 7.8 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.0 bpg, 46.9 FG%, 61.0 FT%

Honestly, those are solid numbers for a first-year player in UNC’s system. They’re also comparable, if not better than, many Roy-era UNC big men not named Tyler Hansbrough. That assist average, in an atrocious year for UNC’s offense, should also raise some eyebrows. Check out these freshman numbers from prior power forwards and centers.

Ed Davis: 18.8 mpg, 6.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.6 apg, 1.7 bpg, 51.8 FG%, 57.3 FT%
James M. McAdoo: 15.6 mpg, 6.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 0.3 apg, 0.3 bpg, 43.4 FG%, 63.8 FT%
Kennedy Meeks: 16.3 mpg, 7.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.8 apg, 0.8 bpg, 54.8 FG%, 58.6 FT%
Tony Bradley: 14.6 mpg, 7.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 0.6 apg, 0.6 bpg, 57.3 FG%, 61.9 FT%
Garrison Brooks: 14.6 mpg, 4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.3 bpg, 52.8 FG%, 58.7 FT%

Before you point out that Bacot played more minutes than that quintet, hold on. I have you covered. Here are the per-40 projections for points and rebounds for each player’s freshman season.

Davis: 14.1 ppg, 14.0 rpg
McAdoo: 15.5 ppg, 9.9 rpg
Meeks: 18.6 ppg, 14.9 rpg
Bradley: 19.5 ppg, 14.1rpg
Brooks: 12.4 ppg, 9.5 rpg
Bacot: 15.7 ppg, 13.5 rpg

In other words, Bacot arguably projected to score more points than Brooks, McAdoo, and Davis on a per-40 minute model. He theoretically would have out-rebounded Brooks and McAdoo, while coming within a shade of Bradley and Davis. Folks, those five comparable players consist of four McDonald’s All-Americans, three national champions, and four who were named to at least one all-ACC team during their careers.

Bacot measured up to all of them.

He grabbed 10+ rebounds 14 times and dropped 10+ points 16 times. Mix and matched together, that production resulted in 11 double-doubles, including 13 points and 12 rebounds in Cameron Indoor. That’s more double-doubles than the other five had in their first seasons. Combined.

‘Mando most likely mirrored Ed Davis’ 2008-2009 campaign. If that holds true, then next year will be a fun breakout season. As a sophomore, Davis averaged 27.3 mpg, 13.4 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 57.8 FG%, and 65.9 FT% in an injury-riddled season. Most UNC fans would take those numbers next season and never look back.

Regardless of future production, it’s important to keep this season in perspective. Bacot started 32 games as a true freshman while battling through recurring ankle injuries, lack of interior depth, and playing with four starting point guards. Add those factors to regular freshman growing pains and there’s a case that Bacot’s performance was one of the most underrated of the season. (There’s a reason Brandon named him our breakout player of the season).

With this year behind him, Bacot seems primed and ready to make amends next season. A predictable up-and-down first season isn’t uncommon. Neither is a sophomore leap. If that trend continues, then Bacot will become one of the more celebrated Heels in 2021.