Isaiah Hicks could have left and could have pursued a professional basketball career but instead he needed maybe one full day, probably less, to decide to return to North Carolina for his senior season. He remembered recently how he informed coach Roy Williams.
It wasn't long after the Tar Heels ended last season with a 77-74 loss against Villanova in the national championship game. Hicks walked into Williams' office. On his desk, Williams had ready the paperwork Hicks needed to complete to declare for the NBA draft.
It wasn't that Williams necessarily thought that Hicks would leave school. But Williams then believed that Hicks would at least explore the possibility – that he'd declare himself eligible and take advantage of the opportunity to experience the pre-draft process: the NBA Combine and workouts with teams.
Hicks saw the paperwork sitting there on Williams' desk. The paperwork did not intrigue him. Nothing about the thought of declaring for the NBA draft intrigued him, even if he knew he could do that and still return to school. And so he saw that paperwork sitting there, waiting for him to sign.
And then, Hicks said, “I was like, I don't need it.”
And how did Williams react in the moment? Was he surprised?
“Yeah, yeah … yeah,” Hicks said, nodding, laughing, saying the word three times. “I think his eyes got big.”
Hicks might have been the Tar Heels' most intriguing professional prospect a season ago – a 6-foot-9 power forward with a knack for finishing plays at the rim. He earned the ACC's Sixth Man of the Year Award. Yet from the time last season ended, he yearned to return to this point.
It was one of the main reasons he decided to come back to school: to play, once again, in the national championship game. Immediately after last season ended, Hicks said, “It was just like one of those moments, like we've got to get back.”
And so now the Tar Heels are back. They play against Gonzaga on Monday night in another national championship game. Hicks is back, too. But he enters Monday amid the most difficult four-game stretch of his senior season, a logic-defying run of games in which he hasn't seemed himself.
Since he scored 17 points in UNC's easy 103-64 victory against Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Hicks is averaging six points per game and hasn't scored in double figures in any of UNC's past four games. That's his longest such streak of the season.
During the Tar Heels' past two games, meanwhile, he has scored a combined six points – his lowest output in consecutive games since December 2015, early in his junior season. In UNC's past two games, victories against Oregon and Kentucky, Hicks missed 14 of his 17 attempts from the field.
Hicks envisioned returning to this point, to the final Monday night of the season. But he didn’t plan on the individual struggles along the way. They have created questions about his confidence and his nerves, two things that at times have betrayed him during his four college seasons.
Again and again on Sunday, though, Hicks insisted he was fine. He said he remained positive.
“I wouldn't say I'm very frustrated or anything, because I feel like I'm out there just trying,” he said. “And I feel like when you try and it don't go well, just keep trying.”
Hicks has indeed been trying. The effort is there. The aggression is even there.
Against Oregon on Saturday night in the national semifinals, for instance, he continued to try to make things happen offensively. It was an especially long night individually, though, and Hicks missed 11 of his 12 attempts from the field.
Roy Williams, the UNC coach, didn't see this coming, either. No one could have.
Hicks played so well, after all, during the ACC tournament in Brooklyn. He scored 19 points each against Miami and Duke, earned first-team all-tournament honors, and entered the NCAA tournament after two of his best games of his senior season.
Since then, Hicks hasn't often played like he did throughout most of the season.
“Last night, I really thought he was going to have a good game, really felt that he would have a good game,” Williams said on Sunday. “And the first shot was blocked and the second one he was sort of wide open and missed that. And then he tried to rush everything a little bit.
“And it sort of snowballed on him. But the game before that, I think he played 20 minutes and had zero rebounds. 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 there.”
Hicks was out there, on the court, when the Tar Heels lost the national championship game a season ago. He's the one in all of the pictures, the only UNC player somewhat close enough when Kris Jenkins, the Villanova forward, is releasing his game-winning 3-pointer as time is about to expire.
Jenkins wasn't Hicks' defensive assignment on that play but, no matter: Hicks has taken the blame for that moment. He was the closest defensive player there, and Jenkins' shot sailed over Hicks' outstretched hand. For a long while, that moment weighed on Hicks. It ate at him.
But Hicks said on Friday, “It's become easier because now – especially now – I feel like we've been given a second chance. It's all about taking advantage of it.”
He was talking about his team. He was talking about himself.
Now, after Monday, there will be no second chances. Not for Hicks, anyway. This is his final college game, and it comes 364 days after he found himself on the other side of history – and on the other side, more specifically, of Jenkins' game-winner.
Since then, Hicks' primary goal has to been to return to this point. He's back, but in a way Williams and Hicks’ teammates -- and even Hicks himself -- are still waiting for him to arrive.