Saturday, July 20, 2024

UNC’s Armando Bacot looks like the star player he once was with a dominating performance in win vs. rival Duke

It hasn’t been too big of a deal because North Carolina is winning a lot, barely losing at all and being led by a dynamic point guard on track to maybe be a First Team All-American. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, things are good.

But Armando Bacot has not been great.

The 6-foot-11 center is playing fewer minutes, shooting it worse from the field and averaging a smaller number of points and rebounds than he did last season even though Bacot started his fifth year at UNC ranked second on CBS Sports’ list of the Top 100 And 1 college basketball players. Only Purdue’s Zach Edey, the reigning CBS Sports National Player of the Year, ranked higher. Fast-forward three-plus months, and Bacot clearly isn’t the second best player in the country; he’s merely the second best player on his own team. And the fact that Bacot entered the weekend having only scored a total of 19 points in the Tar Heels’ past three contests hardly suggested he was maybe primed for a big effort against a forever rival.

But that’s exactly what Bacot delivered Saturday.

Final score: North Carolina 93, Duke 84.

Bacot took 13 shots, made 10 of them and finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in what was his 10th game against the Blue Devils. No matter how you chop it up, that represents his most-productive performance of the season. And now the Tar Heels are 18-4 overall, 10-1 in the ACC and currently projected by to win the league by three games.

“I knew coming into this game I would have a big game,” Bacot said. “I told my mom before the game, ‘I think I’m going to get like 20 and 10.'”

Again, he got exactly 25 and 10.

Expectations exceeded.

The top three teams in Sunday morning’s updated CBS Sports Top 25 And 1 daily college basketball rankings remain Purdue, UConn and Houston (in that order) because nobody else has a better body of work than Purdue, UConn and Houston. But North Carolina is clearly the team that deserves to be No. 4 in the Top 25 And 1. The Tar Heels are 5-2 in Quadrant 1, 4-2 in Quadrant 2 — or 9-4 in the first two quadrants with zero additional losses. That’s a nice resume, one that highlights how North Carolina’s third-year coach, Hubert Davis, seems to be having the bounce-back season most believed he needed after his Tar Heels were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll last preseason before becoming the first preseason No. 1 to completely miss the NCAA Tournament.

“There’s a hunger and thirst with this group … to be the best it can be,” Davis said.

So far, so great.

In the end, this is college basketball, so Davis’ reputation will ultimately be shaped by how well or not-well North Carolina does in the 2024 NCAA Tournament. As proof, tell me what you remember more about the 2018-19 season — Virginia entering the NCAA Tournament with a 31-2 record after winning the ACC regular-season championship by four games or Virginia becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16?

It’s the latter, obviously.

So is it time to call Davis’ third season a success and pencil UNC into the championship game of the NCAA Tournament for what would be the Tar Heels’ second appearance in a three-year span? Clearly not. But Davis does deserve credit for addressing the issues that derailed his team last season, seemingly fixing them and creating a roster that is undeniably capable of getting him to a second Final Four. And if Bacot can recapture the stuff that made some folks think not too long ago that he could be the best player in the country not named Zach Edey, perhaps the Tar Heels will find themselves with a real chance to eventually capture the national championship they let slip away two seasons ago.

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