There was no particular tipping point, North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, and it wasn’t as if Isaiah Hicks did anything extraordinary to find himself on Williams’ good side.
No, Williams said of Hicks this past Saturday, after the Tar Heels’ 96-71 victory against Miami, that he just “wanted to start him.”
“As a coach, I get the privilege of playing who I want at that specific time and I decided I wanted to start Isaiah,” Williams said. “He didn’t bring me any apples or anything like that. I just decided I wanted to start him.”
Hicks, the junior forward from Oxford, made his third start of the season against Miami. As he did the two other times before it, Hicks started in place of Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward. Both of those starts came in UNC victories against Boston College.
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On the surface, at least, Williams’ reasoning behind the decision to start Hicks appears simple: he has been playing well, and consistently, while Meeks in recent weeks has struggled to regain his early-season form after missing time with a bruised bone in his knee.
As a coach, I get the privilege of playing who I want at that specific time and I decided I wanted to start Isaiah. He didn’t bring me any apples or anything like that. I just decided I wanted to start him.
UNC coach Roy Williams
It’s unclear, though, whether Hicks might remain in the starting lineup or whether Williams used Hicks’ appearance there on Saturday as a tactic to motivate Meeks. Williams on Monday during his portion of the ACC teleconference didn’t say whether Hicks would remain a starter.
“I can’t answer the question on permanent switch because we’ve still got two days of practice,” said Williams, whose team plays at N.C. State on Wednesday. “And I changed Justin Jackson for Boston College and he played great and I put him right back in the starting lineup.
“But to be honest with you, I haven’t even thought about that part of it.”
The Tar Heels’ practices on Monday and Tuesday, Williams said, would determine who starts on Wednesday at N.C. State. If past performance against the Wolfpack is a factor, Meeks would likely stand a strong chance to reenter the starting lineup.
He played one of his finest games of the season during UNC’s 67-55 victory against N.C. State on Jan. 16. Since then, though, Meeks has scored in double figures once in eight games. He has scored 14 points, combined, in the Tar Heels’ past three games.
Williams acknowledged on Monday that Meeks “has struggled some” lately. But not so much, necessarily, that he’s assured of losing his place in the starting lineup.
“It depends on how he plays Monday and Tuesday (in practice),” Williams said.
At his best, Meeks has been an efficient scorer on the interior and a valuable rebounder. Williams has often lauded Meeks’ passing, too, and his ability to throw long outlet passes often serves the Tar Heels well given their desire to create scoring opportunities in transition.
Hicks, meanwhile, has been one of the Tar Heels’ most efficient offensive players this season. He has heeded the advice of Williams and his assistants, who often emphasize to Hicks the importance of being aggressive and making quick moves to the basket.
Hicks on Saturday said he was “surprised” to find himself in the starting lineup before the victory against Miami. He played 21 minutes – about three more than his average this season – and was the first starter to leave the game when Meeks entered about 2 ½ minutes into it.
Hicks credited his ascent into the starting lineup to his becoming “better at focusing on coach’s points.”
“Like, when he says he wants us as bigs (to not) shoot fadeaways (and) attack, attack,” Hicks said. “I think I do better at actually listening (and) doing it.”
Against Miami, Hicks provided UNC with a more athletic presence on defense and the same attacking presence on offense.
“Isaiah gave us (on Saturday) what he’s been giving us,” Williams said. “And I just felt like I wanted to make a change. … I don’t sit back and say, well this guy is playing poorly, I’m going to take him out of the lineup for the next 27 days or anything like that.
“It’s just I’m going to play who I think is the best at that specific time and I thought that’s what Isaiah deserved on Saturday.”
The question now is whether he’ll remain a starter, or if Meeks can work his way back in the lineup.