Midway through the second half of Saturday's Carolina-Pittsburgh game, Lamar Patterson finally made Isaiah Hicks look his age.
First, the Pitt senior used a solid ball screen to lose Hicks and tossed in a three-pointer. Then, on the next possession, Patterson used a muscular forearm--he's listed at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds, whereas Hicks is 6-foot-8, 220--to free himself to receive a pass at the top of the key. Then he threw the ball to the wing and appeared ready to go set a screen. The freshman dutifully went to play the screen on the ball, only to discover that Patterson had only faked the screen, and instead had stepped outside the three-point line, where he caught a pass ready to fire a three-pointer.
Hicks recovered, but left his feet when Patterson offered a shot fake. That sent the Greensboro native soaring out of bounds as the senior took one dribble to his left, stepped back, and fired a three-pointer. The shot missed, but the veteran essentially had the rookie on a string for the entire sequence.
And that's the way it tends to go for a freshman facing off against Patterson, an athlete Roy Williams called, "One of the most complete players I think there is in college basketball." There is no shame in losing Patterson for a couple of sequences--it's exactly what has happened to so many ACC freshmen against so many ACC seniors over the past sixty years of the conference.
"Coach told me (Patterson) was, 'Mr. Pitt,'" Hicks said. "I took that as a challenge. I just wanted to limit him, because he's a great player.
"I had to play defense early. There's no standing around against him. He's always moving and they're always setting screens for him. You have to shadow him and chase him. Once you stand straight up, he's gone."
What was notable about Hicks' day on Saturday was that the above teaching moments were far outnumbered by many more positive plays. Hicks played seven minutes, tied for the most he's played since the trip to Syracuse, but the key to his afternoon was the quality, not the quantity. Williams has a simple philosophy for using reserves: it shouldn't hurt the team when they're in the game. If they can help the team, all the better.
Saturday, Hicks helped the team in his seven minutes. He entered for the first time at an important juncture, as J.P. Tokoto was hit with his second foul with 5:26 remaining in the first half. Hicks--who is spending this season at the unfamiliar small forward position rather than his perhaps more natural power forward--entered the game and promptly picked off a steal.
Then, after a Carolina miss, Hicks ran the floor, stopped the ball in transition, and then dropped to the baseline to cleanly block what looked like an easy layup opportunity.
After the block, his length caused an errant three-pointer, and then he grabbed a rebound. His screen freed Leslie McDonald for an open look at a three-pointer. Then, faced with what looked like a certain mismatch, he made perhaps his best play of the game by playing defense with his feet instead of his hands and forcing speedy Pitt guard Josh Newkirk to dribble out of bounds on the baseline.
This isn't a case of cherry-picking Hicks' best plays. During his first-half minutes, he found a way to contribute virtually every time down the court, even when some of those contributions didn't show up in the box score. Those quality plays eventually led to a highlight that everyone noticed, as he exploded to the rim on a one-handed dunk that gave Carolina a 29-27 lead.
He still doesn't look completely natural offensively at small forward--probably because it's not natural. Before Williams put him in the game in the second half, he instructed the freshman to "put the ball inside your shirt before you turn it over," only to watch Hicks try a self-described "slow crossover" and get the ball stripped away.
But watch him away from the ball, and you'll see a player who is slowly adjusting to the speed of college basketball. Midway through the ACC season, he was teetering on the brink of falling out of the rotation; now, he looks like a player who could continue to see minutes into March.
The key, Hicks says, is getting into a rhythm early, which he's learned doesn't always have to happen by making a shot.
"You get in the rhythm early, and that helps," he said. "Instead of getting out there in the second half without a feel for the game, you use the first half to get into more of a natural rhythm."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.