Armando Bacot was distraught and desperate.

Half an hour after North Carolina was shellacked by Wake Forest in Winston-Salem on Feb. 7, the Heels’ 3rd consecutive loss, Bacot, a preseason All-American and the team’s undisputed leader, sat upright, answering questions in hushed tones about what was happening to Carolina’s season. The presesason No. 1, North Carolina was 15-9 and on the wrong side of most bracketology bubbles.

“It starts with me, Caleb, RJ, and Leaky,” Bacot said quietly, referencing the other 3 members of last season’s “Iron Five” who returned to school last spring determined to take one more swing at the national championship that eluded them by just 3 points last April. “We came back for a reason, and this isn’t it.”

In the 30 minutes between the end of the game and Bacot’s comments to the media, a scorned team held a serious conversation in the visiting Joel Coliseum locker room. Bacot led the dialogue, according to North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis.

“It started with Armando, which is what you’d expect from a senior leader,” Davis remembered this week.

“I just told everybody, I’m not going to quit,” Bacot told the media in Winston-Salem. “You can’t go to a place as special as the University of North Carolina is and have no pride. I’m not perfect. I mess up. But I’m not going to quit. I love my university and I am going to go out there and do better. To play the way we have and put in the performances we have is not excusable. I just want to win. I’m desperate to win.”

Desperate or not, things didn’t improve immediately for Bacot and the Tar Heels. They responded well to the Wake Forest loss, clobbering Clemson in the Dean E. Smith Center but then dropped 2 consecutive chances to boost their NCAA Tournament résumé, falling to a ranked Miami team at home and collapsing down the stretch to lose to NC State in Raleigh.

North Carolina has steadied itself, however, winning 3 consecutive games since the NC State loss, including a vital home win last weekend over then No. 6 Virginia, their first Quad 1 victory this season. Another, perhaps bigger, Quad 1 opportunity, looms Saturday night, when hated Duke visits for the second meeting between the rivals this season. Duke won the first meeting, at Cameron Indoor Stadium, 63-57 on Feb. 4.

The game also marks Senior Night in Chapel Hill for Bacot and 5 other Tar Heels seniors, including fellow starter Leaky Black. For Bacot, the emotional challenge figures to be daunting. Four years of basketball celebrated in one night, a season’s worth of NCAA Tournament hopes boiled down, potentially, to one game. Win and the Tar Heels are in. Lose and the Tar Heels may need to summon the magic of ACC Tournaments past when they get to Greensboro next week.

The scale and significance of the game overshadows the celebration of Bacot, even if the Tar Heels’ center is almost certain to receive the largest ovation from the sold-out Dean Dome.

When you talk about North Carolina basketball, you have to be judicious with the word “great.”

The names of Tar Heels players who have been very good are legion.

Great? Those names hang in the rafters. Like Brazilian soccer players, college basketball fans, not just Carolina fans, know them by single names.

Jordan. Worthy. Perkins. Ford. Hansbrough. Carter. Jamison. Stackhouse.

And yes, Bacot.

Now North Carolina’s all-time leading rebounder (he passed Hansbrough, a former Naismith Player of the Year winner, in a win over NC State in January), Bacot has played with a desperation to win since he arrived on campus in Chapel Hill. Across eras and 7 national championships, dominant big men have been the sun around which Carolina basketball orbits. Of the 7 retired numbers hanging in the rafters, 3 have belonged to bigs: Worthy, Hansbrough and Jamison. Throw Perkins in that mix and NCAA Tournament heroes Sean May and Eric Montross, and you have even more fuel for the great big man fire that burns eternal in Chapel Hill. Consider the names not included in this list: Rasheed Wallace, J.R. Reid, Brendan Haywood, and you begin to grasp the scale of Bacot’s rebounding achievement.

Bacot has done it for two coaches and all types of Carolina teams. He was the best rebounder on Roy Williams’ penultimate team as a freshman, ranking 58th nationally in rebounding percentage. That number has improved consistently, with Bacot ranking a career-best 10th nationally in the category as a junior on the defensive glass and a career-best 14th in the country as a senior on the offensive glass, per KenPom.

Bacot has also shined and stayed when others have struggled and left, a testament to his grit and greatness. Higher recruited players like Walker Kessler came and went. Other blue-chip bigs, like Garrison Brooks, entered and exited as well. Bacot stayed through it all, grinding his way up the Tar Heels’ record books all the way to the summit.

The senior doesn’t just own rebounding records. He’s also North Carolina’s all-time leader in double doubles (67), and last March, he became the first player in the history of the NCAA Tournament to register a double-double in 6 games in a single tournament. Bacot is also just 1 of 2 North Carolina players who averages a double-double for his career (Sean May is the other). As a senior, Bacot leads the ACC in rebounding (10.8 per game) and double doubles (18) and ranks 11th in blocked shots (27) and 8th in scoring (16.5 ppg). He’s also been the ACC’s most efficient player in conference play this season, per Bart Torvik.

Bacot may make mistakes, but he’s held up his end of the bargain after electing to return to Chapel Hill for his senior season.

Make no mistake, returning to school also had its benefits for Bacot.

In the NIL era, a player as good as Bacot can (finally) profit off his own talents, and at a blue-blood program like North Carolina, the opportunities and perks of being a star are bountiful. Bacot’s drives a Carolina blue Audi Q8, the type of car that would get you in trouble before NIL but is now a sign of stardom in a long overdue era. By returning to school, Bacot put to rest, at least for a year, questions about his NBA and professional ceiling and took his talents as a college basketball player straight to the bank. He’s appeared on a hit Netflix show set in North Carolina, done a commercial for Nerf, and put away over $500,000, according to his mother and manager, Christie Lomax. Bacot has also gotten it done in the classroom, making the Dean’s List in the fall and readying to graduate in May, a successful accomplishment under any NCAA model, NIL era or no.

But money can’t buy what Bacot wants most, and neither can a degree from a top-10 public university.

Only a NCAA Tournament berth, and 6 wins after it, can accomplish that.

The final chapter of that journey for Bacot, played out in college basketball’s hallowed month of March, begins Saturday night in Chapel Hill on Senior Night.

Nothing about North Carolina this season has shouted national champion, save the preseason hype. Then again, it didn’t a season ago, either.

In many ways, North Carolina is back where it began in 2022, when the team didn’t collect a Quad 1 win until mid-February and seemed to be spinning its wheels in the springtime mud until it whipped a great Duke team in Durham on the night the Blue Devils honored legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who was coaching his final home game. Bacot was a monster in that game, scoring 23 points on an otherworldly efficient 10-for-11 and grabbing 7 rebounds in a big Tar Heels win. North Carolina would win 6 more games after that fateful March night in Durham on their way to the national championship game, ending Coach K’s career along the way before falling just short of one of the most compelling championship runs in NCAA history.

A year later, on the bubble, counted out and cast off, Bacot and the Tar Heels are out to prove they weren’t just a Cinderella who just happened to get hot at the right time last season.

They are back, more ore less, where they began.

North Carolina and Duke, the best rivalry in college basketball.

Senior Night.

One last ride for an all-time Tar Heels great in the Dean Dome.

One last “This is Carolina Basketball” entrance video before Bacot becomes a new voice on the video.

One last ride in March.

A long goodbye, with Armando Bacot at the center of it all.