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UNC Basketball: Know Your Role

Carolina men’s basketball looks completely different from the last two seasons, and that’s no accident. Here’s how the Heels got their joy back.

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

There’s no denying that this season, Carolina feels different. The wins are piling up, and that’s great, but there’s a joy in the team that is subtle but unmistakable. What allows that quality to permeate amongst the group?

The biggest indicator has been chemistry, but more specifically, everyone to a man has bought into their role, even if it isn’t as big as they hoped before the season started.

The biggest catalyst was Armando Bacot. Carolina’s North Star for years, Bacot voluntarily sublimated his place in the pecking order to RJ Davis, as he knew more than anyone else what RJ was capable of. That foresight is being rewarded by order of magnitude.

RJ Davis is having an ACC player of the year level campaign. He has raised all of his offensive metrics — 21 ppg (up 4.9 from last season), 3.4 apg (up 0.2), 44.5 FG% (up 0.7%), 41.7 3P% (up 5.5%), 93.8 FT% (up 5.7%) — all while picking up his defense and reducing turnovers. The emergence of freshman Elliot Cadeau, UNC’s first Kendall Marshall-esque point guard in 12 years, has allowed RJ to play off the ball more and hunt his shot. The results speak for themselves:

RJ’s glow-up does come at a cost, and not every team would be willing to pay it.

Armando Bacot has seen his scoring drop for the second consecutive season (16.3 ppg in 21-22 to just 14.1 ppg this season). Entire halves go by where Bacot doesn’t seem to get fed the ball in the post like we’re used to seeing. But look at the team’s overall ball movement. It’s fast, crisp, and usually finds an open shooter.

Bacot has become college basketball’s premier garbage man. He still gobbles up rebounds and gets plenty of put-backs. He’s taking better advantage of the fouls he earns (which still aren’t nearly enough for the abuse he takes down low), hitting a career-high 79.8 FT%, with an improved stroke that has been replicated in foul-line extended jumpers, and a couple of clean 3-pointers.

Ironically, the thought that Bacot needed to improve his shooting to prove to NBA teams he could play in a modern space-and-shoot system is now outdated. He is showing what he can do to a team’s ecosystem by simply setting quality screens and moving his feet quickly enough to bother guards driving on him after switches. Imagine Armando setting the same screens that RJ Davis and Elliot Cadeau enjoy for clean runs to the rim for someone like Trae Young? Think he would mind that?

The incoming transfers have all bought in as well, filling in around RJ instead of trying to break out into featured stars in their own right. By doing so, they have become something greater than they were before, and all of them are winning big for the first time in their college careers.

Cormac Ryan only made the NCAA Tournament once in his three years at Notre Dame, and did so on a 24-11 team. His other two teams only had 11 wins each. His minutes and points are down from last season, but he is proving invaluable to Carolina as a defender, free throw maker, and tone setter. He’s a bastard, obviously beloved by teammates and reviled by opponents.

Jae’Lyn Withers suffered through three of the worst seasons in Louisville history. He gave up playing time on a losing team to be a key bench player for UNC, and after some early season struggles, is really finding his niche on a team with legitimate postseason aspirations.

Harrison Ingram’s teams went 16-16 and 14-19 during his two seasons at Stanford, in which he was the second-leading scorer after Spencer Jones. At Carolina, he isn’t solely relied on to bring the ball up or be a playmaker — those are just bonuses. Ingram’s shooting numbers (43.1 FG% and 39.2 3P%) are both career-highs. His rebounding has also soared, as he has met Hubert Davis’ demands and has a behemoth in Armando Bacot boxing out would-be competitors for Ingram to grab boards and initiate breaks.

Rising star RJ Davis makes all of this work with a surprisingly efficient game. He scores at all three levels, defends bigger than he is, and can still make plays for others, despite ceding lead point guard duties to Elliot Cadeau. RJ shoulders the responsibility of Carolina’s dreams not as a burden, but a privilege. His light and effervescence transmits to the team, the crowd, and the millions of Tar Heels watching around the world.

However this season ends, it will be remembered fondly forever. The double-digit wins are nice, the defense is wonderful, but the joy is what will burn into the back of the brain.