There were moments, exactly how many were difficult for him to quantify, when Isaiah Hicks on Friday night felt the instinct, the urge, to revert back to old habits. A slight nudge in the back here while going for a rebound. An ill-fated attempt there to try to take a charge.
And then Hicks, the North Carolina senior forward, stopped himself. He remembered a recent lesson, a short sit-down with assistant coach Hubert Davis, and Hicks would then think to himself: “OK, yeah, I don't need to do this. That's fine.”
For the No. 6 Tar Heels (1-0), there were a long line of positives from their 95-75 season-opening victory at Tulane (0-1). Justin Jackson (27 points) and Joel Berry (23), both juniors, both scored more points than they ever had in a college game, and both scored at least 20 in the same game for the first time.
UNC made nearly 50 percent of its shots from the field, and rebounded a little more than half of its misses. Defensively, the Tar Heels limited the Green Wave to 34.7 percent shooting, though it was difficult to tell how much of that was UNC and how much it was Tulane, picked to finish last in the 11-team American Athletic Conference.
Those were all good things for UNC – the scoring from Berry and Jackson, the efficiency, the defense. And yet for the long term, for the ultimate goal of playing once again on the final Monday night of the season, perhaps nothing was as encouraging as Hicks' ability to curtail his fouling habit.
It was only one night – one game in what UNC hopes will be a 40-game season. Still, Hicks went the entire first half, when he played 16 minutes, without committing a foul. He scored 14 of his 16 points during that span and was, at times, the best, most productive player on the court.
“Whenever he's not fouling,” Jackson said, “whenever he's out there producing, and playing defense, scoring the ball quickly – it adds a whole different dimension to our offense.”
That was Hicks for long stretches: producing, playing defense without fouling, scoring quickly. Six of his 16 points came at the rim, on dunks. One of those dunks provided the Tar Heels with their first points of the second half. Moments later, Hicks finally committed his first foul.
That came in his 18th minute of playing time after a relative eternity of foul-free play, given Hicks' past. It was just last season, after all, when he led UNC with 123 fouls – an average of one about every six minutes. Brice Johnson finished second on the team in fouls, with 115, but he played nearly 400 more minutes than Hicks.
“You know,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of Hicks on Friday, “for his whole career, he's probably committed more fouls than anybody in Carolina history, per minute.”
Which is why his performance, especially during the first half, was so encouraging. Williams called it a “very good sign” that Hicks entered halftime without a foul.
“And we've worked on it for three years,” Williams said.
Williams and his assistant coaches have worked on it, especially, in the weeks leading into this season. With the departure of Johnson, a first-team All-ACC forward a season ago, Hicks is UNC's best, most reliable scoring option on the interior.
The Tar Heels' success, or failure, is in large part dependent on his ability to remain on the court. Hicks knows it. Williams knows it. Which is why the UNC coaching staff prepared for Hicks a highlight tape, if it could be called such a thing, of all of his fouls.
A long tape?
“It was,” Hicks said with a laugh on Friday. “It was.”
About two weeks ago he watched it with Davis in Davis' office. The fouls Davis and Hicks reviewed were broken into categories: fouls when Hicks jumped too soon, for instance, or others when he tried to defend a player too far away from the basket.
“Some of them,” Hicks said, “were like just happy feet. So he wanted me to look at it just so I could see for myself.”
Hicks saw, all right. He saw a lot of bad, unexplainable fouls.
He saw himself committing those fouls and compiling them at a rate that, as Williams said, would compare well with the most foul-prone players in school history. And so now, Hicks said, he's more conscious of these sorts of things, more aware of “just playing smarter.”
In 19 of UNC's 40 games a season ago, Hicks finished with at least four fouls. He finished with three in 25 minutes on Friday, an improvement of one foul every eight minutes and 20 seconds or so. When a player was committing a fouls every six minutes, almost anything is an improvement.
And one game a trend doesn't make. To Hicks this was but a start, an encouraging one.
“Yeah,” he said with a nervous laugh. “Just got to keep it going.”