GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) His shots aren’t falling in the NCAA Tournament, neither from the paint nor from the foul line. His rebounds are down. And North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks just hasn’t looked much like the reliable every-game senior starter he’s been all year.
The Tar Heels can’t afford that to continue into the final night of the season, not if they want to beat Gonzaga in Monday’s national championship game and win the title that slipped away a year earlier.
”I wouldn’t say I’m very frustrated or anything because I feel like I’m out there just trying,” Hicks said Sunday. ”I feel like when you try and it doesn’t go well, just keep trying.”
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Still, it’s been an abrupt fade at the worst possible time for the 6-foot-9 forward with the Tar Heels (32-7) on the doorstep of their season-long goal to win the championship that got away during last year’s crushing title-game loss to Villanova.
Hicks had partnered all year with fellow senior Kennedy Meeks to form a complementary scoring tandem behind Associated Press All-American Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II on the perimeter, a key to coach Roy Williams’ philosophy of building a balanced offense. After scoring 17 points in a 1-vs-16 romp against Texas Southern to open the NCAA South Region, Hicks was averaging 12.5 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 61 percent from the field and nearly 82 percent from the foul line.
In four games since, Hicks is averaging 6.0 points and 2.8 rebounds while making 9 of 29 shots (31 percent) and 6 of 13 free throws (46 percent).
This is the same player Williams trusted enough to put on the court with UNC trying to defend Villanova’s final shot in last year’s title game. Now the Hall of Famer needs Hicks to regroup and help counter 1-seed Gonzaga (37-1) with its frontcourt of 7-1 fifth-year senior Przemek Karnowski, 6-9 redshirt junior Johnathan Williams and 7-foot freshman Zach Collins.
”I would say I’m not handling him very well because I’m not changing it so far,” Williams said. ”Last night I really thought he was going to have a good game. … So it’s a tough time for him as an individual.
”I keep trying to tell him, I believe in him, I trust him, I’m going to keep putting you out here. I’ve 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. Hopefully things will change Monday night.”
The most frequent concern about Hicks has typically been whether he’d have one of those foul-magnet nights – sometimes by being too aggressive, other times by seemingly having bad luck on ticky-tack calls – that sent him to the bench.
But the problems have crept into Hicks’ game itself. They were all on display Saturday night against Oregon in the national semifinals, with Hicks looking indecisive while managing two points on 1-for-12 shooting – with a couple of shots swatted near the rim – with three rebounds in 20 minutes. He also played through a left thigh contusion suffered when he took a knee on a first-half drive.
Hicks said his confidence is fine and he’s not pressing.
”It won’t keep him down,” Meeks said. ”He’ll be like, `Everything’s fine.”’
It was hard to imagine this when Hicks had 21 points and nine rebounds in the regular-season finale against Duke, followed by two straight 19-point showings in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament. But he was a no-show for much of the second-round NCAA game against Arkansas before scoring six points during the Tar Heels’ game-closing 12-0 run to rally from 65-60 down late.
He fouled out in just 17 minutes against Butler in the Sweet 16 then played 20 minutes without getting a rebound against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. And that’s what led Williams to play sophomore reserve Luke Maye, who responded with two huge games and the last-second shot that lifted the Tar Heels past the Wildcats for a record 20th Final Four.
The good news for UNC is it has kept winning – maybe surviving is a better word – despite Hicks’ struggles. That might not happen Monday if Hicks can’t solve the riddle of what’s gone wrong.
”I don’t think any of us are worried about Isaiah really,” fellow senior Nate Britt said. ”We’ll expect him to have a big game and Coach has even said that. We still really haven’t had a game in this tournament where everyone, our whole team, has played a pretty good game collectively. So why not do it in this game right here?”
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