Bacot's wild 5-year ride is down to its final March Madness run for No. 1 seed North Carolina

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Armando Bacot should sound tired.

It's not about the North Carolina big man's heavy minutes or physical play at the heart of things for the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament's West Region. Instead, it's the changes that have taken place in a five-year college career that is down to at most five games.

Yet Bacot, as the Tar Heels head into a March Madness meeting Saturday with Michigan State, has remained a constant amid those seismic forces reshaping everything around him.

“I’ve been through three different eras of college basketball,” Bacot said Friday, adding: “It’s been a roller-coaster my whole college career."

Indeed. The 24-year-old has seen some things.

A college-basketball world before the COVID-19 pandemic that included the lone losing season of Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, then one during and one after with an extra year of eligibility. Williams' retirement farewell. A surprising run to the NCAA title game that ended with Bacot hobbled in a valiant effort, followed by an even more shocking collapse from preseason No. 1 to missing the NCAAs entirely.

And that's before getting to the rule changes allowing college athletes to profit from their fame and transfer freely, turning roster construction into a year-to-year project.

It sounds exhausting in totality. Yet it's also put Bacot in the intriguing position of observer to college basketball's evolution, as well as a time of massive transition for an individual program with six NCAA titles.

That explains why coach Hubert Davis — who went from Williams' assistant to successor three years ago next month — said Thursday that how Bacot finishes his career has “been on my mind all season."

“We always talk about how do you react and how do you respond specifically to changes, and he’s had to deal with that from a number of different directions," Davis said Friday.

“So for him to be able to embrace that and then be able to have the career that he has had, I think that’s something to be celebrated for. His commitment to this university and this program for five years, that’s something that’s new as well. I’m glad he’s a Tar Heel and he always will be. It’s been an honor and a privilege to be one of his coaches for the last five years.”

Bacot's career has been like no other at UNC. That includes some of the numbers he's put up in a super-sized college career that includes playing in an Atlantic Coast Conference-record 167 games, enough so that it's been a running joke this year around the team that Bacot really is finally almost out of eligibility.

The 6-foot-10, 240-pound grad student from Richmond, Virginia, chased down records set by program greats Tyler Hansbrough (career rebounding) and Billy Cunningham (double-doubles) within the typical four-year competitive window. And he's risen the scoring ranks with the fifth year of eligibility, breaking a tie with another great in Phil Ford for second in points (2,310) to trail only Hansbrough's ACC-record total of 2,872.

When he's at his best, Bacot is a physical presence capable of banging in the paint, backing down foes to score on the block and relentlessly attacking the glass. The highlight this year likely came against Duke's Kyle Filipowski in a February home win, with Bacot soundly outplaying the 7-footer with 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting to go with 10 rebounds in a rugged performance.

“I think Bacot has really improved as the years have gone on,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They’ve got an inside-outside threat, and they’ve got other guys that can shoot the ball and can play. That’s why they’re who they are. That’s why they’re a No. 1 seed.”

Bacot opened the tournament with 20 points and 15 rebounds against an undersized Wagner front line. That marked his sixth straight tournament game with at least 15 rebounds going back to that 2022 run, making him the first to do that since Jacksonville's Artis Gilmore in 1970-71. He also has seven straight NCAA double-doubles, tying him for the NCAA record alongside two big names: Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon and Wake Forest's Tim Duncan.

Bacot is also unusual in another case: He's become a recognizable face built through a multiyear career at the same marquee-brand program. He's not a high-level NBA prospect, taking away the avenue that had become commonplace in the men's game to bolt early and chase a professional career.

The timing was perfect, though, for him to cash in anyway.

Rules permitting college athletes to profit for use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) launched in July 2021, before Bacot's third season. And he has scored numerous lucrative endorsements and other opportunities, from a small role in the Netflix TV series “Outer Banks” to a recent commercial for TurboTax as a nod to the new world of tax implications for college athletes making endorsement money.

“I thought he killed it,” graduate guard Cormac Ryan said of the TurboTax ad filmed in late-February. “I think he's got a future in acting. I mean, he really turned on the charm. The big fella, he's got it. He's got some juice.”

Maybe so. For now, though, Bacot is consumed by the thought of using it all to keep the Tar Heels playing through to the final Monday night of the season and winning the title that eluded them in the New Orleans' Superdome two years ago.

And that would be quite the finish to one strange and wild five-year ride.

“By far this year has been the funnest for me, just being able to win all throughout the season consistently,” Bacot said. “Like I said, we're just trying to go out there and win a championship.”


AP March Madness bracket: and coverage: