The North Carolina basketball squad didn’t change all that much in personnel last season. J.P. Tokoto, a versatile starter, did leave for the NBA, allowing for Joel Berry II to step into a starting role. Other than his absence, the UNC squad that reached the National Championship game in April wasn’t all that different from the one that bowed out a week earlier the previous season.
What changed to allow the Tar Heels to move from really good team to top two team in the entire country? Well, experience was a main factor, as was the depth the Heels had accrued over the past few seasons. One important aspect to note in UNC’s rise was the ascendance of Brice Johnson, from solid big man to arguably the most dominant big man in the nation. Without his elevation in play, North Carolina doesn’t make that leap to the Final Four.
Once college basketball season tips off later in the year, Carolina will field a team very similar to last year’s. Yes, Johnson and Marcus Paige will no longer be there, and those are some enormous, experienced shoes to fill. Nonetheless, North Carolina is stocked with talent and primed to be, again, a really good team. To become a championship contender? Well, Isaiah Hicks needs to make the same leap that Johnson did.
Hicks was highly recruited coming out of high school, but he has had an up-and-down first three years in Chapel Hill. He barely got any playing time his freshman year, stuck behind Johnson, James Michael McAdoo, Joel James, and Kennedy Meeks. Even when he did see the court, it was often further out on the wing and away from the paint, an unnatural position for a 6’8” bruiser like Hicks.
With McAdoo leaving for the NBA, Hicks saw twice the minutes his sophomore season (still only 14.8 a game) and generally played well in a backup role. However, given his physical stats and high school hype, there was concern that two years had already been wasted for Hicks. That frustration began to change last season and, despite only playing 18.1 minutes a game, Hicks became a crucial piece for the Tar Heels, as well as being named the ACC’s 6th Man of the Year.
As the first player off the bench for Roy Williams, Hicks put up 8.9 points, 4.6 rebounds and got to the foul-line at a fantastic rate. Those numbers don’t pop off the page but, per 40 minutes, they indicate a valuable player ready to earn big-time minutes. Per 40 minutes, Hicks averaged 19.8 points and 10.2 rebounds; the points were only second to Johnson and the rebounds third behind Johnson and Meeks.
Although per 40 minutes statistics aren’t an exact science and sometimes a player should stick to more limited minutes, that shouldn’t be the case for Hicks. We’ve all seen his talent and explosiveness on the court, showcasing a variety of quick post moves and a soft touch around the rim. Oh, and he dunks about as aggressively as anyone in the country.
Now, Hicks will almost certainly step into the role that Johnson’s vacating. Kennedy Meeks will continue to be a presence in the starting lineup, although some of the frontcourt depth has been lost. Luke Maye showed flashes of good play in few minutes his freshman year, but there’s no indication he’s ready for an important bench role. Meeks and Hicks will have the paint all to themselves this season.
With all this, can Hicks really keep up his efficiency going from 18 minutes a game to closer to 30 minutes? He’s got the necessary skills and talent to pick up his scoring and rebounding for sure. Frustratingly like Johnson, he has had a knack for picking up stupid fouls, and he won’t have the buffer (aka him) coming off the bench like Johnson did. Being in the starting lineup and one of the main focal points of the squad, Hicks simply can’t foul like that anymore. He’ll have to adjust there, but all signs are pointing to the big man being one of the ACC’s best.
It has to be said that Hicks has been on the bench for three full years now. When he first came to Chapel Hill, he probably didn’t think he’d get so few minutes and be stuck behind a myriad of talented athletes. He should be hungry to have a dominant senior year. This upcoming season is finally the time for Hicks to become the terrifying low-post force everyone expected.