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UNC Basketball: The Mando Mentality

Breaking down Bacot’s numbers before a big-time Queen City showdown.

NCAA Basketball: CBS Sports Classic-North Carolina at Kentucky Jordan Godfree-USA TODAY Sports

I previously wrote about how great Elliot Cadeau has been at limiting turnovers and not making freshman mistakes so, of course, he proceeds to turn it over on the final play against Kentucky. No one knows what that final play was supposed to look like, but I know for sure that Hubert didn’t call a play by saying “Cormac, see if you can catch the ball between your shoulder blades and then kick it to RJ.” At any rate, Hubert is keeping whatever that play should have been in his back pocket, to be unveiled later.

So now, let’s see if I can pull off the reverse jinx with Armando Bacot this week in asking why Armando Bacot’s numbers are so drastically different in the Smith Center, compared to on neutral courts?

In the five games in the Dean Dome, Armando has balled out, averaging 20.6 points and 12.8 rebounds per game. By comparison, away from Chapel Hill, he has been plainly mediocre scoring just 9.8 points and reeling in 9.8 rebounds in those five games. UNC is 5-0 and 2-3 in those contests, respectively.

In the Dean Dome, Armando has looked every bit the national player of the year candidate, but very pedestrian away from home, and the Tar Heels have yet to play a true road game (which they will not do until 2024). This is a bit worrisome heading into conference play where all ACC road environments are hostile and wins are difficult to come by.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have been to a game in the hallowed Smith Center know that it is a magical place. But is there a more logical explanation for the huge discrepancy in stats? One could point to the shift in competition level, with three of the five neutral site matchups being against teams that were ranked in the top 20 at the time, but Armando went for 22 points and 11 boards at home against current #8 Tennessee.

Another factor may be the level of aggression. Bacot tends to play below the rim and is often dominated by taller, more athletic big men. Not to question his toughness or passion—after all, he was fired up enough against UConn to get whistled for a technical foul—but other times he has a somewhat lackluster demeanor that is frustrating to fans. As physical as the Villanova game was, Bacot didn’t get to the foul line one single time. Versus a Kentucky freshman he should have dominated, he had a passive FOUR field goal attempts in the entire game.

Could it all just be psychological? Not having the home crowd fully on your side has to take a little wind out of your sails, but how about this stat: 84% from the free throw line in the Dean Dome, 68% away. That has to be in his head, right?

This first third of the regular season has been a roller coaster ride for Armando. The highs have been really high and the lows, well, not so great. The Tar Heels need the good version of Bacot if there’s gonna be another deep run in the tournament. He’s been a great ambassador for the university and the Carolina Family, he’s been a fan favorite for years, he’s shattered records and had an unforgettable career. Showing my age here, but like catcher Jake Taylor said at the end of Major League: “There’s only one thing left to do: win the whole f***ing thing.”

Ideally, the UNC offense should work inside-out, with Armando Bacot as the centerpiece. Go in to him first, and if the look isn’t there or the double-team comes, kick it out to the open man on the wing rather than the guards trying to create an opening off the dribble and then forcing it inside. Oklahoma comes into Charlotte for the Jumpman Invitational undefeated with two experienced 6’10 big men. It would be super cool to see Bacot channel his inner Montross, get bloody, and go hard in the paint.

See ya later, Big Grits.