GLENDALE, Ariz. – Roy Williams had done his due diligence, as he’s done for so many of his players in the past. He had sought feedback from more than 20 NBA teams on Isaiah Hicks’s draft stock, and in late April, called the ACC’s 2016 Sixth Man of the Year into his office to sign some paperwork to let him test the NBA waters.
As the story goes, Williams had already filled in the blanks, save for the signature line. It’s become a simple process of filing paperwork, working out for scouts and then waiting to hear if a draft night selection is a legitimate possibility. Justin Jackson signed, went to the NBA Draft combine, received valuable feedback, pulled his name out of the draft and then won ACC Player of the Year honors.
Hicks, however, immediately turned his coach’s offer down.
“I was like, ‘I don’t need it,’” he said. “… I think his eyes got big for a second.”
His decision to return for his senior season had been made in the hours after Kris Jenkins sent UNC back to Chapel Hill without a national championship. According to the Oxford, N.C. native, there was moment of clarity that struck him not long after returning home, an awakening of sorts: “We’ve got to get back.”
“After it ended last year, it was always about getting back to that game and winning this,” Hicks reiterated on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Tar Heels are two wins away from achieving the redemption they have sought for 360 days.
Hicks has been tagged, incorrectly, as the Tar Heel out of position on that final play on the last Monday night last season, primarily because it’s him who leaps, too late, to get a hand up on Jenkins’s game-winner. He absorbed the blame willingly, knowing the truth and not caring what anyone outside of the Carolina locker room believed.
That strength in loyalty prompted Roy Williams to schedule an offseason press conference in which the first matter of business was setting the record straight on Hicks’s role on the play.
“One of the few times, maybe the only time, I've ever had a postseason press conference like that, but I did it because Isaiah was taking the blame,” Williams said on Sunday. “That just tells you the kind of kids that I have.”
Even now, Hicks doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that his primary reason in returning for his senior season without so much as a glance at the NBA was how his junior season ended. So many good times bookended by a conclusion too harsh to endure. Time and purpose have helped in the weeks and month since.
“It’s become easier especially now because I feel like we’ve been given a second chance,” Hicks said. “It’s all about taking advantage of it.”
The Tar Heels are still not back to where they’re determined to go, but they have at least returned to the Final Four. There will be no more flights to other cities, no more hotel rooms once they check out in Phoenix. First comes Oregon, and with it the opportunity for Hicks to make it back to that last Monday night.