NEW ORLEANS -- North Carolina star big man Armando Bacot plans to play in the national championship game against Kansas on Monday night.
Bacot sprained his right ankle in UNC's 81-77 win over Duke in the Final Four on Saturday. He left for less than a minute of game time after the injury and moved gingerly in the second half's final minutes. Tar Heels coach Hubert Davis said Bacot was slated to practice Sunday but stressed that the team's entire workout would be limited. He said that the X-rays on Bacot were negative and the swelling wasn't overwhelming.
"He's ready to play tomorrow night," Davis said.
Bacot is the most difficult player for UNC to replace if he's limited. He's the program's leading scorer (16.3 PPG) and rebounder (13.1 RPG), and his rebounding total ranks No. 3 in the country. He ranks No. 8 in defensive rebound percentage (30.2%) and No. 21 in offensive rebound percentage (14.9%), per KenPom.com.
Bacot said on Sunday that he has been treated almost constantly since the game ended. After the X-rays, he said he spent two hours treating the ankle and then woke up and got into the pool to rehab on Sunday morning. He said that while working on a homework assignment for a sports facilities class on Sunday morning, he kept the ankle in compression sleeves. While meeting with the media Sunday afternoon he said he had stimulation treatment on it.
"We don't have another big man," Bacot said, "so I don't have a choice."
The options that the Tar Heels have behind Bacot aren't appealing. They could move 6-foot-9 forward Brady Manek to the 5-spot, which he played frequently against Kansas while at Oklahoma. That would create a difficult mismatch inside for UNC against Kansas' David McCormack, who is coming off a season-high 25-point blitz against Villanova.
McCormack is a 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward whose comfort with contact made him a human bowling ball on Saturday night. He celebrated with self-congratulatory muscle flexes on a night in which he went 10-for-12 from the floor with nine rebounds.
Davis went as far as to say the winner of the national title on Monday night "could ultimately come down to the winner of that matchup."
If Bacot is limited in the title game and UNC wants Manek to avoid playing post defense against McCormack, the Heels could turn to either reserve forwards Justin McKoy (6-8, 220) or Dontrez Styles (6-6, 210). None of those options are attractive for UNC.
"We don't have any other big men," Bacot said. "If I don't play, who knows what Dave McCormack may do?"
The absence of 6-11 forward Dawson Garcia from the UNC roster could loom large if Bacot is limited or again finds foul trouble. Garcia, a Marquette transfer, last played for UNC on Jan. 22; the school announced in February he wouldn't return because of family medical issues.
That has afforded Bacot more of a chance to dominate. In the NCAA tournament, he has averaged 16.8 rebounds through five games. That included 21 rebounds against Duke and 22 against Saint Peter's. "I feel like the best big in the country," Bacot said.
Bacot spent about a minute writhing on the ground in pain on Saturday night against Duke after it appeared he stepped on the foot of teammate Leaky Black with 5:18 remaining. He limped to the bench without putting weight on his right leg, his arms draped around two teammates for the walk across the court.
He initially said he was in so much pain he wasn't even thinking about going back in the game. Bacot walked around toward the tunnel at the UNC bench, and said a pep talk from trainer Doug Halverson gave him an adrenaline boost. Halverson mentioned Joel Berry overcoming ankle injuries in the run to the 2017 national title without any treatment.
When a teammate asked him about his health upon checking back in the game with 4:36 left, Bacot recalls saying a more profane version of the phrase: "Forget it." That was captured on video and made the rounds on social media. He added Sunday: "I mean, there's four minutes left for the national championship [game]."
Bacot said on Sunday that he didn't think UNC would have won the game if he didn't come back and play those four minutes. He fouled out with 46.7 seconds left.