By Adam Lucas
A member of the Carolina basketball staff was walking through the Smith Center this summer during the break between the final session of summer school and the start of classes. He heard the bouncing of a basketball in the practice gym and found a single player inside, working on his game.
“Isaiah,” he asked, “what are you doing here?”
It’s not that senior Isaiah Hicks isn’t a hard worker. It’s that for his first three years as a Tar Heel, he took any possible opportunity to make the 35-minute drive to his home in Oxford to see his family. “Everybody used to give me a hard time about going home so much,” he says with a grin. “If there was a chance to go home on a Wednesday for a few hours, I would go home.”
This year, though, he stayed in Chapel Hill throughout the summer. Why the change?
“I knew if I went home, it wouldn’t be as intense working out as it would be here with Jonas (Sahratian), especially in the weight room,” Hicks says. “I wanted to maintain what I had done all summer until the school year started.”
Spoken like someone who realizes this is his last chance at college basketball. Hicks had a breakout junior campaign, averaging 8.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He appeared to gain confidence as the year progressed, and his numbers (9.2 and 5.1) were even better in conference games. He posted a double-double against Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament semifinals, his first such career performance.
There’s very little doubt that when Hicks is on the floor, he can be productive at the highest level. So the question becomes—how much can he stay on the floor?
On an ESPN podcast this summer, Roy Williams told Andy Katz, “Isaiah’s got great numbers, but he’s got to stay in the game. He averaged seven fouls per 40 minutes played; that’s a few too many. We played him 20 minutes per game because he was in foul trouble all the time. If we can keep him out of foul trouble, he can make a very significant leap.”
Hicks recognizes he must balance maintaining the aggressive style that makes him effective with playing the game with more savvy. The Tar Heels would like to get Hicks a higher quantity of shots—he’s one of just three ACC players in the last 20 years and one of only four Tar Heels ever to shoot at least 60 percent from the floor and 75 percent from the free throw line in the same year—to see if he can maintain his projected pace, but he’ll need to stay on the court to do it. He collected 24 fouls in Carolina’s six NCAA Tournament games, including five in just seven minutes against Indiana in the regional semifinal.
“A lot of the foul trouble has to do with IQ for the game, and knowing when to do something and when not to,” he says. “Last year we had Brice and Marcus, and my thought was to go out there and help however I could. I wasn’t thinking about the fouls as much until the end of the season when Coach told me I needed to be on the floor. As you play more minutes, you learn more about when not to do things that can get you in trouble. You learn how to stay down on the ball fake, not being so anxious to block shots, stuff like that.”
The good news is Hicks clearly has the ability to understand the game. He won Carolina’s team defensive award eight times last season, the second-most on the squad. That’s an honor that is based largely on following the Tar Heels’ defensive principles and being in the correct spot at the correct time; he’s proven he can do that consistently.
Now he just needs to be available for consistent minutes, which he believes started with making more of a commitment to his offseason workouts.
“What I’ve learned is you can still be aggressive all the time,” he says. “Staying out of foul trouble doesn’t mean you don’t go hard. I can’t play that way. But I can’t be too aggressive at the wrong time, because that’s what got me in trouble.”