GLENDALE, Ariz. – The headlines have come easy for North Carolina’s starting five during its NCAA Tournament run to the national championship game on Monday night. Justin Jackson has returned to the ACC Player of the Year production, Kennedy Meeks has become a force in the post, Theo Pinson has made plays in the final seconds of games and Joel Berry has those two bad ankles that everyone’s talking about.
And then there’s Isaiah Hicks, who has struggled unlike any other time in his senior season. Since scoring 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting in UNC’s tournament opener against Texas Southern, the Oxford, N.C. native has largely been invisible, save for some splash dunks and costly turnovers. He’s averaging 6.0 points on 31 percent shooting and 2.8 rebounds in his last four games.
Hicks entered the NCAA Tournament shooting a team-best 83.1 percent from the free throw line, but even that production has plummeted. He’s shooting 43.8 percent (7-of-16) from the charity stripe in five NCAAT games.
"I wouldn't say I'm very frustrated or anything because I feel like I'm out there just trying," Hicks said at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday. "I feel like when you try and it doesn't go well, just keep trying. It's all about what Coach says, that you're a great player and to lose yourself in the game. When shots aren't falling, all I can do is try.”
Given Gonzaga’s sizable frontline, UNC needs Hicks to regain his confidence in time to help Kennedy Meeks down low.
“It's a tough time for him as an individual,” Roy Williams said. “I keep trying to tell him I believe in him, I trust him. I'm going to keep putting you out there. Said many times I'm not the smartest, but I'm not the dumbest guy. So if I keep putting you out there I must have more confidence in you than you have in yourself. So hopefully things will change Monday night.”
** One subtle defensive change UNC implemented this season was relying on a flat hedge against the ball screen instead of its typical hard hedge.
Why? Hard hedges, which are designed to slow the ball handler down and redirect him away from the basket, can be tough for big men like Kennedy Meeks, according to 2005 Final Four Most Outstanding Player Sean May, who is UNC’s director of player personnel. The flat hedge limits the amount of ground the big man has to cover as it requires a simple slide to cut off the driving lane around the screen.
Opponents were able to consistently exploit the Tar Heels’ hard hedge last season, and after some success with the flat hedge in the 2016 postseason run, Williams decided to make it a staple this season. The adjustment presented some challenges earlier this season, according to Berry, but UNC has made significant strides in defending ball screens in the postseason.
** The last time UNC and Gonzaga played was in the 2009 Sweet 16 in Memphis. Before departing Chapel Hill for The Peabody Hotel, Williams called Gonzaga head coach Mark Few and invited his coaching staff out for a night of gambling in Tunica. After both teams converged on Beale Street and bed checks were made at midnight, the coaches piled into NCAA courtesy cars and made the 45-minute drive south.
“We played two or three hours, shot craps,” Williams said. “We both lost. We get back in the car and heading back to Memphis. It's about 3:00 in the morning. I get pulled over. And I wasn't really -- I was speeding, but it was like two or three miles [over], and I was really surprised. And I realized I had the NCAA logo thing on the side of the car. And the guy comes up and he said, ‘Coach, I wondered if somebody had stolen a car or something like that.’”
As Williams told the story, he chatted with the police officer for several minutes and then bribed him to pull over Few’s Ford Fiesta, which was trailing several minutes behind.
“But they missed us,” Few said. “So [Williams] came running up to my assistants the next day, ‘did you, did you?’ And my assistant was looking at him, ‘what are you talking about?’ ‘I told the cops to pull you guys over.’ So we skated through there, luckily.”
Williams told reporters that hearing the news that Few’s staff had avoided the blue lights “just ruined my day.”
** Six days after nearly coughing up a seven-point lead to Kentucky with 54 seconds to play in Memphis, UNC avoided an eerily similar catastrophe as Oregon scored six unanswered points in the final 45 seconds to cut its deficit to 77-76 with seven seconds to play. Meeks and Berry combined to miss four free throws in the final 5.8 seconds, although UNC persevered with a pair of offensive rebounds.
Given the way the Tar Heels narrowly avoided trading victory for defeat in their last two games, there have been plenty of questions as to whether or not UNC is a team of destiny.
Jackson laughed off the question, while Meeks was inclined to point to a higher power. Pinson answered in the affirmative: “Yes, definitely.”
“We understand that we don’t want to go through that situation all the time,” Pinson said. “We want to finish games the right way. We’ve had a pretty good margin lead, but we have to keep it. At the same time, it shows our fight in those situations and ability to focus on the task at hand.”
** Williams will coach in his 100th NCAA Tournament game on Monday. He’s 75-24 all-time, including a 41-10 record at UNC. Since returning to Chapel Hill, the Hall of Famer is 8-1 in the Sweet 16, 5-3 in the Elite Eight, 4-1 in the Final Four and 2-1 in the title game.
** Monday’s game marks the eighth time in NCAA Tournament history that two No. 1 seeds have played for the national championship. It’s the fourth time a top-seeded UNC team has played a No. 1 seed for the title (’82, ’93, ‘05).