UNC-Wilmington's Devontae Cacok Is the Most Lethal Post Player in the Nation

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 4, 2018

Devontae Cacok
Devontae CacokUNCW Athletic Communications

In the state of North Carolina dwells a 6'7" center who set the NCAA record for field-goal percentage as a sophomore prior to a junior season with a rebounding rate better than Blake Griffin's best year in college.

But this paint-patrolling phenom doesn't play for the Tar Heels or the Blue Devils. Nor is he on the roster at Wake Forest or North Carolina State.

Rather, Devontae Cacok has been putting up his historic numbers at UNC-Wilmington, which might make him the program's first NBA player in more than two decades.

"He's unlike anybody I've ever coached before, just because of his ability to rebound and go get that basketball."

UNC-W head coach C.B. McGrath raved about Cacok in a recent interview with Bleacher Report. That's high praise from a man who has coached more than his fair share of elite big men.

Prior to taking his current position in 2017, McGrath spent nearly two decades as an assistant to Roy Williams. At Kansas, McGrath would have worked with Nick Collison, Drew Gooden and Wayne Simien. And during his tenure with North Carolina, you're talking about 30 McDonald's All-Americans, including the likes of Tyler Hansbrough, Sean May, Marvin Williams, Brandan Wright and plenty more.

"In terms of physical attributesspeed, strengthhe's up there with all those guys," said McGrath. "In terms of motor, he's up there also. He's just 6'7" instead of 6'9"-6'10"."

These days, most players Cacok's height primarily play on the wing. Case in point: Through eight games, Duke's RJ Barrett (6'7"), Jack White (6'7") and Cam Reddish (6'8") have combined to attempt 139 threes. Even Cacok's 6'7" teammate Jeantal Cylla averages more than three three-point attempts per game.

But through 105 career games, Cacok has yet to tee up a deep ball (though both he and Coach McGrath said he's working on expanding his range and we may see one soon). Even if he does eventually try his hand at a triple or two, the point remains that he knows his strengths are in the paint, and he approaches the game like a true center.

Fans of yesteryear's mid-major stars might be reminded of UC Santa Barbara's Alan Williams (6'8") when they watch Cacok. UNC-W's undersized big man doesn't block shots as often as Williams did, but both centers have such a work ethic and a thirst for rebounds on both ends of the floor that their teams typically run a four-out, one-in offense.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Or if you care to go back a few years before Williams, there's another double-double machine who Cacok says he gets compared to often.

"Kenneth Faried is one of the biggest ones I've always heard," Cacok told Bleacher Report. "His being undersized but still having that motor and athleticism that separates him from other bigs. Having that combo is something we pride ourselves on."

Faried was a legend on the glass for Morehead State. In all four of his seasons, he ranked top-eight in the nation in both offensive rebounding percentage and defensive rebounding percentage, per KenPom. He averaged at least 13 rebounds per game in each of his final three seasons.

Cacok ranked second in OR% and third in DR% last season while averaging 13.5 rebounds per game, so that comp checks out nicely.

While we're making comparisons to former greats, here's some more context on that Blake Griffin note from earlier: According to Sports Reference, dating back to 1995-96, only two non-seniors have averaged at least 13.4 rebounds per game in a season. Cacok did it last year, and Griffin did it en route to the 2009 Wooden Award. And Cacok's per-40-minutes rebounding rate (18.3) was even better than Griffin's was (17.3).

"It's a huge advantage to always know that there's going to be someone there giving their all that you can use as an example and show on tape and all those kinds of things," McGrath said. "We'd like it to be more a of a team thing and not just Devontae as the sole guy getting rebounds. But he does get a lot of them because of his athleticism, his physicality and also his motor."

There's that word again. After a while, it starts to feel like you're talking about NASCAR or getting estimates from mechanics with all the "motors" flying around. But it's hard to use any other word when you watch Cacok bust his tail to get into the proper position for every loose ball.

Devontae Cacok lays out for a loose ball
Devontae Cacok lays out for a loose ballUNCW Athletic Communications

He's no one-trick pony either.

Cacok set the NCAA record for field-goal percentage in 2016-17, making 80.0 percent of his shots. Sure, it was mostly layups and dunks, and his usage rate was rather low. But do you realize how many thousands of players have met that description over the years without coming anywhere close to making four out of every five field-goal attempts?

The only other player in the past 26 seasons to average at least 6.5 field-goal attempts per game while making at least 72 percent of them was Kansas' Udoka Azubuike (77.0 percent) last year. And if you want to talk about a guy who shoots nothing but layups or dunks, the 7'1" center for the Jayhawks has probably never made a bucket from outside the paint.

Cacok is modest when asked about his spot in the record books.

"I heard about it throughout the season. It was on ESPN for a little bit," he said. "But even back then and until now, I don't really think about the numbers. It just kind of happened on its own because of my hard work and my teammates. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have had that field-goal percentage. I definitely viewed that as kind of a team reward."

"He still has in his mind that he needs to make every shot," McGrath said. "But when you're shooting more difficult shots, you're going to miss a few. He needs to not worry about that and just do what's best for him and what's best for the team."

Last year's field-goal percentage wasn't anywhere near as high (58.5), but that's largely because he had to take on a much heavier load as the only returning starter. One season after shooting 80 percent, his rate of field-goal attempts per game increased by nearly 80 percent—all while going from an afterthought to the primary concern for opposing defenses.

Cacok averaged 17.7 points per game and finished the season with 22 double-doubles, including an outrageous 26-point, 24-rebound performance in a 71-68 win over James Madison. Though the Seahawks struggled as a whole, Cacok led the team in scoring and led the nation in rebounding.

Cacok (15) with former teammate CJ Bryce when both were freshmen.
Cacok (15) with former teammate CJ Bryce when both were freshmen.Lance King/Getty Images

If there's one area where he needs to improve, it's defending without fouling. Cacok fouled out of 10 games last season and got whistled four times in a dozen other games. That seemed to be the only thing that could keep him from destroying opposing teams, because he averaged 20.2 points and 15.4 rebounds in the 10 games with three or fewer fouls.

It has been a similar story thus far this season. Cacok has already fouled out of five of UNC-Wilmington's first nine games. But in three games with three fouls or fewer, he's averaging 18.7 points and 18.3 rebounds. That includes the game against Allen University in which he shot 8-of-8 from the field and finished with 22 points and 26 rebounds.

Basically, as long as he's on the court, he can't be stopped.

This then begs the question: How did he end up at UNC-Wilmington?

"I haven't played basketball that long," said Cacok. "I didn't start seriously playing until ninth grade. I had a lot of mid-major schools recruiting me. And then we went to one of Georgia Tech's team camps. They watched my game and they said, 'We love you, this and that, but you're just a little too undersized.' Stuff like that just pushed me, even now. Always trying to prove people wrong."

He'll get a big chance to further prove the Yellow Jackets wrong Wednesday against North Carolina. Cacokwho put up 12 points and 15 rebounds against Virginia in the 2017 NCAA tournamentwill head to the Dean Dome for another opportunity to show he's good enough for the ACC.

North Carolina is always one of the best rebounding teams in the country, but Cacok is going to make the Tar Heels work for every board they get.

          

Advanced stats from KenPom.com and Sports Reference.

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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