Friedlander: Who, if anyone, can anyone challenge RJ Davis for ACC Player of the Year honors?
Believe it or not, RJ Davis wasn’t among the 5 players selected to the ACC’s preseason 1st team.
He didn’t make the 2nd team, either.
No big surprise.
As good as the sharpshooting guard has been during his 1st 3 seasons at North Carolina, he’s always been viewed as a complementary player rather than a star.
That’s been Armando Bacot’s job.
The record-setting big man has been playing for the Tar Heels longer than 8 of the ACC’s 15 coaches have been at their respective schools. Including his own coach Hubert Davis. And he’s been the face of the program who twice has finished in the top 3 of the voting for the league’s Player of the Year award.
Bacot is still playing at a high level. He’s averaging better than 14 points per game, leads the ACC in rebounds and has improved his free throw percentage to a career-best .798.
But this year, he’s the one being overshadowed by a teammate.
It’s not as if Davis is an overnight sensation. He’s posted double-figure averages in each of the past 2 seasons and led UNC in scoring in 2022-23. It’s just that, as his coach Hubert Davis points out, “he’s finally getting noticed.”
The 6-foot senior guard doesn’t just lead the ACC in scoring at 21 points per game. He’s also shooting 41.7% from 3-point range and has one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the conference at 2.3 to go along with a free throw shooting percentage that’s on pace to be the best in school history.
His leadership and play on both ends of the court have been a driving force behind UNC’s current 9-game winning streak. He’s got a legitimate shot at becoming the 1st Tar Heel guard to earn 1st-team All-American honors since Joseph Forte in 2001.
And that was before he had fans at Smith Center chanting his name by scorching Wake Forest for a career-best 36 points on Monday.
📽️: Highlights from yesterday's 85-64 win vs Wake Forest pic.twitter.com/7gkeJ03OOl
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) January 23, 2024
It was a performance that had people ready to start etching his name onto the ACC’s Player of the Year trophy.
That’s a little premature, of course.
Davis is certainly the clear-cut frontrunner for the award. But because they don’t hand out trophies until all the games are played, there are others who could still play their way into the conversation.
Including these worthy candidates:
Kyle Filipowski, Duke
The preseason Player of the Year pick hasn’t been as consistently dominant as predicted when he announced his decision to return to the Blue Devils for his sophomore season. But he’s put up some strong numbers, nonetheless.
The 7-foot forward is 4th in the ACC in scoring at 18.2 ppg and 5th in rebounding at 8.6 per game while averaging 2.9 assists and 1.9 blocks per game. He’s improved his overall shooting percentage from 44.1% to 51.6% and made an even bigger jump in his 3-point accuracy from 28% to 42%.
Filipowski joined Davis in the 30-point club in a come-from-behind win against Georgia Tech earlier this month to go along with 5 games of 25 points or more.
PJ Hall, Clemson
Hall got off to a blazing start in leading the Tigers to an 11-1 start and a No. 16 national ranking. But his play tailed off during the 1st few games of the new year and his team followed his lead by losing 4 of 5.
He’s since recovered by hitting for 26 points and 11 rebounds, then 31 and 17 with 3 blocks in a win against Boston College and an overtime loss to Georgia Tech. The 6-10 senior center is 2nd among ACC scorers behind only UNC’s Davis at 19.7 points per game. He’s also in the top 10 in rebounds (7.1) blocks (2.1) and shooting percentage (.520).
Blake Hinson, Pittsburgh
The Panthers’ star gained notoriety last weekend for jumping onto the media table to taunt Duke’s Cameron Crazies after a sterling individual performance to beat the Blue Devils. But his Player of the Year credentials have far more substance than just an entertaining postgame celebration.
Pitt's Blake Hinson did what every player visiting Duke has dreamed of doing to the Cameron Crazies. 😂 pic.twitter.com/BBsRSa2iPw
— Michigan Super Fan (@CollegeSportsO) January 21, 2024
He’s the league’s 3rd-leading scorer at 18.4 ppg and thanks to his 7-for-7 performance from beyond the arc against Duke on Saturday, he’s shooting 42% from 3-point range for the season to go along with 5 rebounds per game.
As solid as his performance has been, Hinson will have to overcome the fact that his team is buried deep in the ACC standings nearing the midway point in the conference schedule, although thanks to the win in Durham, it has begun to show signs of life.
Norchad Omier, Miami
A hero of the Hurricanes’ surprise Final 4 run last season, Omier has inherited the role of team leader from last year’s ACC Player of the Year Isaiah Wong.
He was already one of the league’s best rebounders despite being undersized at 6-7 and he’s once again among the leaders at 9.6 per game. He’s added an improved scoring element to his game this season by upping his output by nearly 5 points per game to 17.9 while shooting a sizzling 62.4% from the floor. He erupted for 33 points on 12-of-14 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds in a win at Notre Dame on Wednesday.
Omier is also a top-notch defender who averages 1.6 steals and nearly a block per game.
Judah Mintz, Syracuse
Mintz surprised many by returning to school to help Adrian Autry establish himself in his 1st season with the Orange. His performance thus far has been anything but a revelation. He’s picked up where he left off from his ACC All-Rookie team performance by posting averages of 17.9 points, 4.3 assists and 2.2 steals per game.
He’s scored in double figures in all but 2 games this season with a high of 33 in a win against LSU in the ACC/SEC Challenge. He put up 28 on Tuesday in a loss to Florida State.
Armando Bacot, North Carolina
Oh yeah, that guy.
Although his teammate Davis has stolen the headlines with his high-scoring, hot-shooting performances, it’s not as if Bacot has been dogging it. He’s still averaging a double-double at 14.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. And he’s blocking 2 shots per game to help anchor a UNC defense that has limited its opponents to 70 or fewer points in each of the Tar Heels’ 9 straight wins.
Bacot’s stock could improve considerably with several high-profile games coming up, including 2 against rival Duke. There’s also a possibility he could gain some votes for career achievement after coming so close to winning the award twice earlier in his career.