With UNC's season still on brink, all eyes are on Armando Bacot's ankle ... again
Survive and Advance.
The mantra was birthed a half hour down the road, in Raleigh, but it’s the only March theme that matters for the North Carolina Tar Heels at the ACC Tournament this week in Greensboro. In the first game of Carolina’s ACC Tournament journey, the Tar Heels played like a team with one last chance to impress the Selection Committee, routing Boston College 85-61.
North Carolina, the preseason No. 1, entered the ACC Tournament on the wrong side of the bubble, mostly because the Tar Heels team that showed up in Greensboro on Wednesday night has been missing too often this season. North Carolina ran excellent offense, dissecting a solid Boston College defense to the tune of 1.35 points per possession, a magnificent level of efficiency that was among their 5 best this season.
The Tar Heels were blistering in the first half in particular, scoring 43 points and converting 7 of their first 10 possessions on their way to building an early 8-point lead that swelled to 14 by the half.
Caleb Love was the Caleb Love of last March, leading the Heels with 22 points, shooting an effective 9-20 from the field, and picking up 3 steals on defense.
Pete Nance continued his solid play of late, and he’s added rim protection to the Tar Heels’ still improving defense. Nance swatted 4 shots, with 2 outstanding rejections on what looked like easy Boston College buckets.
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Playing closer to the tin over the past few weeks also continues to help him get into the flow offensively, as he was 4-of-5 from the floor, with all his makes coming inside the arc.
Leaky Black was the lockdown defender Carolina fans have loved for 5 seasons.
Efficient offense and sufficient defense. That was North Carolina’s March formula a season ago, and it resulted in a Final Four trip that nearly delivered the program’s 8th national championship.
Of course, this was one the Tar Heels were supposed to get, not one that will get them in the NCAA Tournament field. Those games begin Thursday, when Carolina faces 2 seed Virginia. The Tar Heels lone Quad 1 win this season came against the Cavaliers less than 2 weeks ago, but that game was played in Chapel Hill and the teams were on equal rest. Thursday will be harder, and the only thing consistent about the Tar Heels this season has been their inconsistency. As encouraging as Wednesday night was, there’s no telling which North Carolina team shows up Thursday night.
Worse, there’s no knowing which Armando Bacot shows up, either. The North Carolina star had 8 points and 5 rebounds in the first half, controlling the game with his dominance of the glass. Then, in the latest nightmarish turn to a nightmarish senior season, Bacot rolled his left ankle and limped into the locker room for the remainder of the opening half. When he returned in the second half, his ankle visibly wrapped, he was a shell of himself, walking gingerly on offense and without his usual elevation defensively. He played just 18 minutes overall, finishing with 10 points and 6 boards. Bacot wasn’t needed late against Boston College. He will be needed Thursday night, as he and his Tar Heels teammates fight for their NCAA Tournament lives.
We’ve seen Bacot deliver magic on a wounded ankle before, but how much is left in the tank? That’s the question that will define Thursday’s game and perhaps, the remainder of this ACC Tournament.
A win over Boston College hardly moves the needle for North Carolina’s bubble hopes. At the same time, you have to start somewhere, and you might as well start with as impressive a game as you’ve played in months against an Eagles team that arrived in Greensboro having played decent basketball. It’s clear, then, that this North Carolina team isn’t mailing it in, or resigned to playing in the NIT next week.
But in a season where so much within North Carolina’s control has gone awry, it is things outside of North Carolina’s control that may decide their fate. Upsets in other conference tournaments and bubble bid thieves, what a handful of Selection Committee members decide they value as the Committee meets this week, and above all, Bacot’s left ankle.
Can North Carolina beat Virginia without Bacot at full strength?
It would be a heavy lift, but that’s the hole North Carolina has dug itself as Wednesday night in Tournament Town turns to Thursday. The only real option? Survive and advance.