CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Isaiah Hicks has improved almost every facet of his game in his senior season, but none has been more pertinent than his newfound ability to stay out of foul trouble.
The Tar Heel forward, who has fouled out three times this season, is averaging 2.4 fouls over his last nine games and hasn’t fouled out since UNC’s 89-86 overtime win over Clemson on Jan. 3.
Hicks’s numbers have gone up during that span: he’s averaging 14.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. The rising production can be attributed to an increase in playing time. The Oxford, N.C. native – has logged more than 30 minutes in three of UNC’s last six games.
Roy Williams said on Tuesday his senior forward’s foul reduction is due to a shift in his defensive mindset.
“He’s gotten in better position, but the biggest thing is playing defense early, being aware of what might happen and being ready instead of just reacting,” Williams said. “In the past he was not playing defense early and was reacting to everything.”
With Theo Pinson’s limited availability this season, Hicks has been tasked with defending on the perimeter more frequently, which he’s managed effectively. Don’t ask him about the foul issues, however.
“I’m not even thinking about it,” Hicks said. “Honestly, I’m just out there playing.”
How much do you follow Duke during the year?
“I follow them, but I don’t know that I follow them any more than I do any other team. In this area they get more coverage than Florida State does, or Virginia, or anything like that. When I’ve watched them play so far, it’s because they’re playing a team that we’re getting ready to play… starting tonight I’ll be watching their games because it’s who I’m trying to watch. It’s been a lot of news coming from over there… Some I’m sure they like and some hasn’t been as pleasant. I know Mike certainly didn’t want to miss those game. They started out the season with two or three guys in street clothes that they recruited to be in uniform. They’ve got most of them back and Mike’s back now…. I did watch their game against Notre Dame, but like I said I was getting ready for Notre Dame. They were awful impressive at that point.”
Does having experienced guys that have played in Cameron before help?
“It is a unique atmosphere, it’s a great atmosphere. If you really just focus on the game and not the rest of the stuff it’s a fantastic atmosphere to be playing in because it’s always loud…. I don’t know…. Last year I thought Brice (Johnson) and Marcus (Paige) were really big for us with their experience and having the other guys understand what was at stake…. I like going over there with some experience.”
Duke doesn’t have a very big post presence. Do you think you’ll be able to exploit that like you did in the Notre Dame game?
“Well it’s a double-edged sword because we may have an advantage but it gives them an advantage because one of our big guys has got to be running around guarding the guy that’s on the three-point line. Which factor of the game is going to be the most dominant? I think our rebounding was really important to us Sunday against Notre Dame but when you think about the biggest plays… it was a jump shot by Joel (Berry) to take it from two to four and it was a turnover that we got out on the break…. When they have a post player in there, he’s really good. If they have two of them in there then they’re really, really good. Sometimes they just play with one so our four-man has to go out there and guard them or we have to play small.”
With the league having several examples of short turnaround games, what do you take preparation wise when you look forward to the NCAA Tournament?
“I’ve never been through a year…. I mean guys, we’ve played six games in 11 days, three games in five days, one game in nine days, and now one game in thirteen days. It’s very discouraging to me. I like routines, I like things that have a rhyme or reason behind them besides what television wants.”
“So I haven’t enjoyed the preparation as much… I don’t know what to do at times… We played Sunday afternoon, gave them yesterday off, now we’re bringing them in today and we practice tomorrow and play on Thursday. Then we have one game seven days later. It’s harder for me. I’m one of those guys that likes routines. Does it get you ready for postseason play? I think the ACC schedule gets you ready for the ACC Tournament and both of them get you ready for the NCAA Tournament. I think we have three times where we’ve had a game, a day off, and then a game. I don’t know anybody else in the league that has three. That’s really hard during the course of the season, but that’s what you have to do in tournament play…. It’s been very unusual and very uncomfortable for me all year.”
Are you comfortable with the team’s 3-point shooting right now?
“I’d like for us to score more inside and outside both. I’d like to score 120 or something. Where is your strength? I think with Brice that was an unbelievable strength we had inside and we don’t have anybody scoring at Brice’s pace or with a shooting percentage that he had. Yet, Justin Jackson is shooting a much higher percentage than he did last year. Joel Berry is doing the same thing. I think you have to make decisions during the course of the preparation – what you’re doing well, what you’re doing poorly…. We need to be more effective with our inside game if we want to reach our big time dreams.”
Does that fact that Duke’s rotation has been in flux all year make it difficult to scout them?
“It probably does for us, too. Joel wasn’t there, Tony (Bradley) wasn’t there, Theo (Pinson) wasn’t there and then he was there. I don’t think their lineup is real settled right now, but that’s me looking from a distance…. There’s no way they envisioned all of those kids being hurt.”
In the last nine years, your team has been able to build a double digit lead at Duke seven times. What’s enabled your team to withstand the initial flurry and build a lead?
“Really good players who are really focused. If you’re not really focused you’re going to get run out. I think we’ve done that. I know in ’15 when they won the National Championship we had pretty significant leads both here and there, but we couldn’t finish the game… I think that was a big failing on our part but it was also a big positive for them because they were able to withstand it.”