CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — In the moment, it was the same as always: Armando Bacot thrusting his hands in the air, grabbing at a loose basketball and calmly corralling it.
An otherwise ordinary rebound.
Except this one — which Bacot snagged a minute shy of 7 p.m. Saturday, with 6:54 left to play in North Carolina’s eventual 80-69 win over NC State — was anything but.
It was Bacot’s 1,220th career rebound, the one that pushed him past Tyler Hansbrough, and into first place all-time in North Carolina program history.
“Now it’s just really sinking in,” Bacot said. “(Hansbrough’s) one of the greatest players of all-time, and to be able to pass him just means the world.”
To become a college program’s all-time leader in anything, obviously, is an accomplishment. But at a blue blood like North Carolina? At the place that produced Hansbrough, Antawn Jamison, James Worthy and Sam Perkins, and so on and so on … well, that’s really saying something. Just look at the company Bacot shares, and will forever:
UNC's best all-time rebounders
|Name||Seasons||Career rebounds||Rebound average||Most in 1 season||Double-doubles|
And as if Bacot topping those guys wasn’t impressive enough, consider some of all-time legends not in UNC’s top-10: Worthy, Eric Montross, J.R. Reid, Sean May, Rasheed Wallace, Mike O’Koren, Brendan Haywood and Tyler Zeller all included. Just looking at that list, something May said earlier this week springs immediately to mind. “We do the best job with bigs in the country, period,” said Bacot’s position coach, and the MOP of the 2005 Final Four. “I think that spans decades, right?”
He has a point. Across eras — from Dean Smith to Roy Williams and now Hubert Davis — game-wrecking bigs have been a part of North Carolina’s basketball DNA, as much as the Four Corners offense, or pointing to the passer, or the trademark argyle stitched in every uniform. Your proof? Just look at the front row of the Smith Center rafters. Of the seven retired numbers in program history, three belonged to big men: Hansbrough, Worthy and Jamison.
Armando Bacot passes Tyler Hansbrough for most rebounds in Carolina Basketball History. pic.twitter.com/oAAxTXKfUk
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) January 22, 2023
This one record doesn’t automatically put Bacot in that trio’s rarified air. But to call him one of the best bigs to ever come through Chapel Hill? That’s more than reasonable, considering his counting haul of historic marks:
• Most double-doubles in a UNC career, after his 23 points and 18 rebounds against NC State on Saturday. He’s now at 61, passing Billy Cunningham.
• One of two Tar Heels in the last 50 years (the other being May) to average a double-double for his career.
• Most rebounds (511) by a Tar Heel in a single season, and the second-most by any college player in a single season since 1985-86.
• Most double-doubles in a season (31), tying David Robinson’s all-time NCAA record.
• First player in college basketball history to record six double-doubles in a single NCAA tournament.
It’s a lot.
“He’s part of the family,” Jamison said. “To be the best to ever do it, as far as rebounding, give the man his kudos.”
To see Bacot now is a testament to the work the former five-star recruit has put in. In one of his first open gym sessions at UNC, before his freshman season, Bacot remembers matching up with Hansbrough — and getting a quick lesson in the physicality required to be successful. “I ended up having to go to the hospital,” Bacot said this week. “Had to get stitches in my mouth. He had busted my mouth all open, chipped my teeth and all that.”
Hansbrough, who has kept in touch with Bacot since, says he’s always been impressed with the Richmond, Va., native … even considering that early (and unintentional) dust-up.
“He’s an attacker,” Hansbrough said. “Armando has really improved in his strength over the years and being able to take contact. From his freshman year to now, how he handles physicality and contact is night and day.”
Per KenPom, as a freshman starter on Williams’ penultimate team, Bacot had the 58th-best defensive rebounding percentage nationally, a metric he’s only improved over his four years. To have done that while sharing frontcourt minutes his first two seasons with Garrison Brooks, Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler spoke to Bacot’s natural board-getting ability.
So, what makes up that ability? Ask Hansbrough or May or Jamison, and all three point to the same two things: your technique and your want-to.
The former is calculable or at least visibly identifiable. May says he and Bacot work on multiple granular aspects of rebounding, like tracking angles off the rim and “carving out space” around the basket. “If you’re weakside on the rim, that’s your side. You’re carving out that entire space and not letting guys come into you and get around you,” May said. “For a lot of bigs, they tend to stay on other guys’ backs; he does a good job of getting off people.” Some of that is Bacot’s 6-foot-11, 235-pound frame, but it’s also his footwork and movement at that size, to evade or sidestep box-outs.
Armando Bacot needed 17 rebounds to pass Tyler Hansbrough on the career rebound list Saturday. He got 18. (Bob Donnan / USA Today)
Jamison said one of the things he focused on most during his playing days was knowing specific shooters and where their misses tended to go from different spots on the court. “Having a knack of where the ball may hit — like for guys shooting in the corner, if he’s gonna be short, long — and just trying to get position,” Jamison said. “When you watch (Bacot), that’s one of the things you see he does a great job with: putting himself in position to kinda read where the rebound might be coming from.” That also includes Bacot’s own misses, which represent a large chunk of his career boards. In fact, if there’s anything that best represents his growth over four seasons, it’s his offensive rebounding numbers. Per KenPom, Bacot is No. 14 nationally and No. 1 in the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage, the highest rate of his career.
Hansbrough points to something else, that he and Bacot have in common: pure strength, especially in the lower body. “A big part of my game was being strong. So boxing out, getting in the right positions, being relentless,” Hansbrough said. “Also a lot of times, it’s a quick second jump.” Even considering Bacot’s various injuries this season — a shoulder injury kept him out of the Virginia Tech game, and he sprained his ankle in the first three minutes against Virginia — he’s continued to excel with his second jumps, even if those rebounds don’t result in made baskets. It’s part of the reason why, per KenPom, Bacot draws 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes, the best in the ACC and 23rd-best rate nationally.
But there’s also the matter of Bacot’s mentality. His want-to. And that, even more than his technical tendencies or size, is what impresses some of UNC’s best bigs ever.
Jamison likens Bacot’s tenacity to a few of his former NBA contemporaries: Reggie Evans, Ben Wallace and, yes, even Dennis Rodman. Bacot has more size than any of those three, but Jamison said his refusal to be denied is just the same.
“If you don’t have that mindset, it doesn’t make a difference. I know so many players who had the physical attributes to be an unbelievable rebounder — size, quickness, anticipation — but mentally, it wasn’t a priority (for them),” Jamison said. “It’s part of (Bacot’s) identity now; I mean, you’re surprised if you see Armando out there without a double-double.”
Bacot said that he’s always had that mindset, and while that is perhaps the case, both Davis and May point to a few specific moments in his career where his trajectory seemed to rise. For May, the first came toward the end of Bacot’s sophomore season when he was “starting to figure out who he was as a player.” May said that playing behind Brooks as a freshman helped instill the value of rebounding since it was Bacot’s way onto the floor early on. The same sentiment applies for playing alongside Sharpe as a sophomore and realizing he could post similar numbers. Davis points to last season’s home win over Virginia, when Bacot had 22 rebounds, as a watershed moment. “I just felt like the lightbulb came on,” Davis said. “That he could be one of the best players in the country, and he could take it to a different level.”
To start this season, though, Bacot posted single-digit rebounds in four of UNC’s first six games. Then came his shoulder injury against Indiana and the missed game against Virginia Tech — UNC’s fourth consecutive loss at that point, and the one that caused the Tar Heels to slip out of the top 25. Since then, though? Bacot has averaged 11.2 rebounds per game, looking every bit the force he was throughout the team’s 2022 NCAA Tournament run. The switch flipped back on, if you will.
Saturday was just the latest example of that, but it surely won’t be the last. It can’t be. Not if North Carolina wants to rejoin the top 25, win the conference or — most importantly — make it back to the Final Four, Bacot’s stated goal for this season.
At this point, especially if the Tar Heels can go on another run, it’s fair to wonder just how far Bacot can extend his record. With at least 12 more games guaranteed this season — 11 regular-season, plus at least one in the ACC Tournament — it’s possible for UNC’s star center to put his mark well out of reach. Assuming his season average of 11.6 rebounds per game holds, we’re talking about nearly 1,350 career boards by early March.
In that case? Bacot won’t just own the program’s all-time mark; he’ll have a shot of finishing this season in the top-10 nationally in the modern era (since 1985-86).
There’s no debating Bacot as an all-time Tar Heel icon. Maybe not to the level of Jamison, Hansbrough or Worthy, but certainly as one of the best bigs — and players, period — to ever come through Chapel Hill. Winning ACC Player of the Year this season, or being named an All-American, would only add to his individual legacy.
But the thing that matters most to Bacot, especially with this long-looming record secured?
The one thing his position coach can still hold over him: a national title ring.
“Oh, he’s got bragging rights over me, for sure,” May said of Bacot getting the record, “but I’ve still got one more thing he’s gotta accomplish — and once he does that, we can have another conversation.”
(Top photo of Tyler Hansbrough, left, and Armando Bacot: Bob Donnan / USA Today)