Mié. Abr 17th, 2024

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ARMANDO BACOT DIDN’T MINCE words about RJ Davis.

«It’s his team,» he told ESPN.

For a three-time All-ACC selection and preseason All-American to make that proclamation about his North Carolina teammate was noteworthy.

«That means the world to me,» Davis responded. «It means a lot just to hear those words from him. I’m definitely honored and grateful to receive that kind of notoriety and recognition so far this year. I’ve been patiently waiting my turn.»

Given the season Davis is having, it’s hard to disagree with Bacot. The senior guard leads the ACC in scoring (21.3 PPG, 10th in the country in that category). He’s fifth in 3-point shooting (41.0%) and second in free throw shooting (90.4%) and also ranks in the top 15 in assists and top 20 in steals. His 36 points in January against Wake Forest was the most points in a game by a UNC player since Brice Johnson in 2016.

Despite not even being included as a first- or second-team preseason All-ACC selection, he has been arguably the best guard in the country this season and has a great shot at being picked as a first-team All-American by the end of it.

«I just feel like RJ has been overlooked for the type of player he is, and I feel like for the first time here, he’s being celebrated,» coach Hubert Davis said. «And I think that’s really cool.»

Despite starting all but one game over the past three seasons, RJ Davis was always the third or fourth scoring option for those UNC teams. He shared the backcourt with Caleb Love, giving the Tar Heels two combo guards who would prefer to score rather than run an offense. That didn’t always lead to efficient offense, however, and led to transfer rumors surrounding both Love and Davis toward the end of last season. Love ultimately transferred to Arizona, while Davis returned to Chapel Hill.

«I didn’t want to leave North Carolina,» Davis said. «It wasn’t even in my mind. It was more so, what does my future look like? What type of legacy do I want to leave behind? And that was really the main mentality and mindset that I [had] going into the offseason.»

That included taking on a bigger leadership role.

«I’ve seen the ins and outs of success and when things didn’t go as planned last year,» he said. «Going into my fourth year here, I knew I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone a little bit. Be that leader, whether that’s talking or bringing guys along the way. Because I feel like that’s what’s needed … I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be that voice.»

With Davis having his career year, Bacot — the team’s leading scorer in 2020-21 and 2021-22 and a preseason first-team All-American entering this campaign — has taken a backseat this season. Even with his dominance over the past few weeks (19.6 PPG, 12.0 RPG in his past five games), Bacot is still averaging his fewest points (14.6 PPG) since his sophomore season and has the lowest usage rate (20.1%) of his career.

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Armando Bacot turns defense into offense with and-1 bucket

Armando Bacot makes a great defensive play and immediately gets rewarded with a tough and-1 bucket for UNC.

«What I’ve been focusing on more than anything is just being a defensive anchor and taking pride in it,» Bacot said. «Even at the next level, plays won’t ever really be run for me. So being able to do the small things like set screens, create good offense, make good reads, I think that’s great. I like being a janitor-type of player. I want to be the guy making everything happen. I love it and it’s a lot of fun and we’re winning.»

It’s not something most players with his collection of accolades would do in their final season of college basketball, but it’s been a critical part of Carolina’s redemption story. The parallel rise of RJ Davis and the Tar Heels — who currently sit at No. 10 in the country and the top of the ACC standings — is indicative of the culture and identity coach Hubert Davis wanted to instill in his team this season.


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RJ Davis talks UNC’s togetherness during win streak

North Carolina’s RJ Davis joins Scott Van Pelt to react to his career night and the hot streak the Tar Heels have been on.

THE STORY OF 2022-23 North Carolina, the first preseason No. 1 team to miss the NCAA tournament, is well-known at this point. The Tar Heels had made a surprising run as an 8-seed to the national championship game in 2022, and the expectations were raised entering last season. But they lost four games in a row in the opening month, then dropped five of six midway through conference play and never even made it to the NCAA tournament. At the end of the campaign, seven Tar Heels went into the transfer portal and starters Leaky Black and Pete Nance were out of eligibility.

So Hubert Davis transformed his roster. In came transfers Cormac Ryan, who spent four seasons at Stanford and Notre Dame; Harrison Ingram, a former five-star recruit who’d had an up-and-down two seasons at Stanford; Jae’Lyn Withers, who broke out as a freshman at Louisville but didn’t take the expected step forward; and Paxson Wojcik from Brown. He also signed five-star recruit Elliot Cadeau, a pass-first pure point guard who reclassified from the class of 2024 and was expected to make the backcourt roles more defined alongside RJ Davis.

But with all the new additions came the challenge to get everyone on the same page, and quickly. So before their first practice in the summer, Hubert Davis told his players what he expected from them as a team, the program’s basketball principles — centered around toughness, discipline and unselfishness — and identity at both ends of the floor. He then quizzed the team on those principles.

The players failed. So he gave them the quiz again.

«If anybody doesn’t get 100 on it, they’re not practicing,» Davis told his team. «How can we get to where we need to go if you don’t even know who we are and what we want to be? I’ve never seen that before. We got to identify clearly who we are and what we want to be, then we can move forward.»

The second time, everyone got 100.

For Davis, it wasn’t about forgetting last season happened. It was about getting Carolina back to what has proved to be successful throughout its history. Coming out of last season, there was a negative narrative about the Tar Heels. They were coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in college basketball history. Their top three transfer additions (Ryan, Ingram, Withers) all came from teams that had gone a combined 29-68 last season.

Perhaps the lack of success across the board helped, though, giving the Tar Heels a collective chip on their shoulder.

«There’s foundation pieces that have always been here at Carolina, regardless if it’s returning players or new players from the transfer portal or freshmen,» Hubert Davis said. «There’s things that we do here that, regardless of the personnel, this is who we are. This has allowed us to be good and successful over a long period of time. The standard is the standard here. This is Carolina basketball.»

A big part of the turnaround had to come on the defensive end of the floor. The Tar Heels allowed an adjusted 97.2 points per possession last season, per KenPom. Since 1997, Carolina has allowed more than that just twice: In 2019-20, when it went 14-19 and missed the NCAA tournament, and 2001-02, when it went 8-20 and missed the NCAA tournament.

Last season’s team also struggled offensively, but everyone knew this group had scorers. The improvement, and the buy-in, had to come at the other end of the floor.

«It just boils down to maturity and listening,» Bacot said. «Our team is talented, but I’ve played on even more talented teams here. But this team, we just really listen and we really trust each other, especially on the defensive end. And it’s crazy to think a Carolina team is one of the top defensive teams in the country, because that’s usually not what you get out of a Carolina team.»

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Virginia flushes alley-oop en route to eliminating UNC from ACC tourney

Reece Beekman throws it up to Kadin Shedrick for the Virginia alley-oop.

Through 26 games, despite allowing at least one point per possession in five of its past six games, there’ve been major strides. Carolina has the best defense in the ACC, allowing teams to score just 69.9 points per game in league play and fewer than 0.98 points per possession. Conference opponents are shooting less than 47% from inside the arc and 29% from 3-point range against the Tar Heels.

«I love it,» RJ Davis said. «The overall attention we play with, the aggressiveness. Coach Davis always said that we’re going to be fine on offense, but it’s going to be our defense that sets us apart. And I think we really took ownership in that. I don’t mind the ugly wins. The grittiness, the aggressiveness, the intensity and the overall joy. It’s all there.»

The message hasn’t always resonated this season, however. Carolina started off well enough on the defensive end but gave up 83 points in a loss to Villanova, 92 in a win over Tennessee and 87 apiece in back-to-back defeats to UConn and Kentucky. The turning point was that final game — specifically, the team’s response to losing to the Wildcats.

«I noticed a change when we played Oklahoma [the next game],» Hubert Davis said. «I told them, at that point we had not made a commitment to defense and rebounding. This is what is required there. Until you guys do that, we’re going to be in every game and it’s going to be close against teams like UConn and Villanova and we’re not going to be able to win those games. From that Oklahoma game, that has changed.»

The Tar Heels ran off a 10-game winning streak, not allowing a single opponent to score more than 70 points, beginning with that 81-69 victory over Oklahoma. Their defense has had some hiccups in the three weeks since the winning streak ended with a one-point loss at Georgia Tech, allowing each of their past six opponents to pass the 70-point mark — resulting in a 3-3 record.

Despite giving up 81 points last weekend against Virginia Tech, their perimeter defense looked more like the unit that stifled so many teams at the start of ACC play. The Hokies, who are shooting better than 37% from 3 in league play, went just 7-for-26 from 3. A performance like that, combined with a week off before heading on the road to Virginia (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN), could refocus Carolina defensively.

«We were dialed in on both ends of the floor,» RJ Davis said after the game. «I think we kind of got our groove back a little bit in terms of our defensive mindset. It was in the gaps, it was talking, getting through screens, and help side was there … We also wanted to make a statement again and just get ourselves back in the win column.»


DAVIS’ 20 POINTS IN the win over Virginia Tech last weekend pushed him to No. 12 on North Carolina’s all-time career scoring list, and 2,000 career points are conceivably within reach before the season ends.

But it’s another statistic that leaves him flabbergasted.

Through 26 games, he’s averaging 21.3 points per game. If he can increase that slightly by the end of the season, to 21.5 per game, he will have the highest single-season scoring average for a Carolina guard since Charlie Scott in 1968-69. That’s more than Michael Jordan, more than Rashad McCants, more than Joel Berry II, Marcus Paige, Shammond Williams, Joseph Forte and any other elite guard who has come through Chapel Hill in the past 50 years.

«I’m blown away,» he said, before a laugh and a pause that lasted several seconds.

«It’s a surreal moment because there’s a lot of players and great scorers that came through here, and for me to do that, like, I don’t know. I’m speechless. I never really thought about it. This is an historic program and the players that came through here. All the great guards. Michael Jordan, man. That’s just insane for me. To hear that out loud, that’s crazy.»

This season isn’t about individual accolades for the Tar Heels, though. Those will come, of course. But it’s a collective redemption. For Davis and Bacot to erase the memories of last season’s disappointment. For Ryan and Ingram and Withers to bounce back.

The other returners wanted another chance at a deep run in March, while the newcomers went to Chapel Hill for the chance to experience it.

«There’s a hunger and a thirst, whether it’s from the freshmen, the transfers, the returning players, to be good. To be at our best,» Hubert Davis said.

This is clearly not a group that takes losing lightly. The Tar Heels refocused defensively and on the glass after the Kentucky loss, and they held a players-only meeting after the Georgia Tech game. This is a group of players who, collectively, have experienced plenty of losses in their college careers. They don’t want it to snowball into an extended losing streak like the ones the Tar Heels have experienced the past couple of years.

That’s why getting back on the right track against Virginia Tech was so important — bouncing back from an unexpected loss at Syracuse and regaining momentum entering a stretch that will decide the ACC title.

«RJ and I didn’t like what happened over in Syracuse and we did a great job responding,» Bacot said after the win over the Hokies. «It’s been a tough stretch and we’re in a position at the top of the ACC. … This is the first time in my career where we’re not on the bubble, so it feels good.»

As RJ Davis said, this is a team driven by victories, not stats.

«They came here to Carolina because they were chasing something. What that was, was winning.»

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