I probably could have made a case for literally any of the Iron Five to be the feature of this article. Caleb Love was a twisted ankle and an awful shooting Monday night from the best tournament performance from a guard UNC’s ever seen, with a shot that will live forever in UNC and NCAA Tournament lore, and single-handedly won the Heels’ two hardest victories; R.J. Davis kept the Heels in at least 3 games with his timely scoring when nobody else could get things going and his turning a corner as a pick-and-roll playmaker was integral to this team reaching its potential; Leaky Black’s ability to erase every opponent’s top scorer kept UNC from somebody going nuclear to beat them; Brady Manek stepped up his game as an interior defender and set a UNC record for NCAA Tournament three-pointers. To be honest, those five meshed together so well that naming one as the Player of the Tournament seems almost an insult to what this run was.
But all of that was ultimately anchored with a rock-solid presence under the basket on both ends of the floor, namely one Armando Bacot, who in UNC’s run to the national championship game became the first player in the history of the NCAA Tournament to record 6 double-doubles, setting a record that’s extremely unlikely to ever be broken (to spell this out: the only way to play 7 NCAA Tournament games is to make it from a play-in game to the championship). Bacot, who was just outvoted for ACC Player of the Year and on the outside looking in at the All-American conversation entering the tournament, was the best big man in every game he and UNC played, absolutely vacuuming rebounds on both ends of the court (he finished with 99 rebounds, 38 of them offensive) and paying his dues on offense with 92 points through the 6 games. His efficiency wasn’t very good; he shot just 42% from the floor (capped by a 3/13 game vs Kansas where he was visibly hobbled the entire time, read more here), but it was good enough for him to be a threat and open up the rest of the offense, which was at worst top-3 among teams in the tournament.
In the Elite Eight and Final Four, Bacot truly shined, collecting more than 20 rebounds in each game as the upstart Peacocks just didn’t have anybody who could compete with his size and the Blue Devils’ bigs got into early foul trouble and forced Krzyzewski to go small in his last game. Against Duke, Bacot arguably made the play that turned the tide of the game, intercepting an attempted baseline save by Paolo Banchero and finishing through contact from Mark Williams for a 57-55 lead and Williams’ 4th foul, which planted him on the bench for a long stretch until the game’s final moments. Duke took a couple of 1-point leads after that, but they never lasted long, as from that point on, the Heels felt undeniable. And with an opportunity to take a lead from the free-throw line with under a minute left, Williams, cold from not playing and visibly feeling more pressure than he probably ever has in a basketball setting, bricked both free throws and then put himself in the NCAA’s forever highlight reel as Caleb Love’s dagger flew over his fingertips.
Bacot was unfairly cut down in the last moments of UNC’s Final Four win after turning his ankle stepping on a teammate’s foot, but not only did he improbably come back to finish that game, he started and played 38 minutes of a championship game two days later that I can only assume were powered by undiluted adrenaline. Against David McCormick, who’d had the game of his life 48 hours earlier, he held his ground on the defensive end and drew fouls with regularity, going 9/13 from the free throw line amidst a tournament where the 70% shooter had been slumping from the charity stripe. And then a wet spot and/or loose floorboard caused him to re-injure the same ankle at a pivotal moment, spelling the end for both Bacot and UNC. Sports are cruel more often than they’re not.
Bacot was, several times over, just inches away from getting his jersey immortalized at the Dean Smith Center this season. He was barely outvoted for ACC Player of the Year, earned Third-Team All-American honors from a couple of lesser-known publications (Second-Team is the bar for jersey honors), could easily have been the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player had UNC won, and will almost assuredly be the team’s MVP when they sit down as a group and vote in a week or two, which would qualify him had the team won a championship. And I’m no voter, but he certainly looked like a conference Player of the Year, and definitely didn’t look like only the third or fourth best center in the country throughout the tournament. It is, again, cruel, that such a run isn’t going to be materially memorialized in the way that those of several of his predecessors have been, but we’re going to remember it all the same. Armando Bacot, our rock, our anchor, our rebounding machine, made it possible for the most unlikely UNC team possibly ever to make a run to the last college basketball game of the season. I don’t know what he’s thinking about regarding his future, and I’m not going to use this space to pontificate, but regardless, Bacot’s tournament is the stuff of a Tar Heel legend.