One of the most important questions facing North Carolina entering this season, its first in five years without stalwarts Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, is whether its best scoring option on the interior can consistently put himself in position to succeed. It’s whether Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward, can for the first time in his college years avoid his proclivity for fouling.
There were a lot of strong numbers for the Tar Heels during the first half of their 95-75 victory on Friday night against Tulane. UNC during the first 20 minutes scored 46 points, which reflected its preferred efficiency on offense. The Tar Heels shot 54.8 percent from the field, and 14 of their 17 made shots came on the other side of an assist.
One of the most encouraging numbers for UNC during the first half at the Smoothie King Center, though, was in fact the absence of a number. It was zero: Hicks’ foul total. He entered halftime with 12 points and three rebounds, after making all five of his attempts from the field. And yet perhaps it was the roundest, lowest number of all that is most indicative of his development.
Among his teammates, Hicks last season played the sixth-most minutes. And yet he led the Tar Heels with 121 fouls – 15 more than Johnson committed in 398 more minutes of playing time. On average, Hicks during his junior season committed a foul a little less than every six minutes he was on the court. For one night, at least, he avoided such self-inflicted trouble.
Hicks, a full-time starter now for the first time, finished with 16 points and six rebounds. Six of his points came on dunks, including an authoritative one moments after the second began. A couple of minutes later – in his 16th minute of playing time – he committed his first foul and finished with three.
The momentary reversal of Hicks’ fouling habit – more evidence is needed before it can be called a trend, or a permanent development – was but one of the highlights for UNC in a season opener that didn’t lack for them.
Like, for instance, Justin Jackson’s 27 points. Those were the most the junior wing forward had ever scored in a college game, and the outburst came amid an especially strong shooting performance. Jackson made nine of his 12 shots from the field, and four of his five 3-pointers.
Perimeter shooting had been among his points of emphasis after Jackson made fewer than 30 percent of his 3-point attempts last year. So, as with Hicks’ fewer fouls, Jackson’s shooting was among the victories within the victories for UNC.
Meanwhile, Tony Bradley, the 6-foot-10 freshman who has appeared in the best position to make a significant early contribution, did so. He scored on his first shot from the field, as did fellow freshman Brandon Robinson, whose first college points came on a 3-pointer from the right wing.
Without Johnson and Joel James, another departed senior from a team that reached the national championship game last season, UNC has one fewer traditional post player than it did. Which means that Bradley will have an opportunity he might not have amid a more crowded roster.
In his college debut, Bradley in some ways mirrored the kind of performance Hicks so often provided in his early years: one replete with offensive polish but riddled with fouls. Bradley finished with 10 points and made five of his six attempts from the field, but he finished with four fouls, too.
If there was a downside for UNC, which led 46-32 at halftime, it might have been that the Tar Heels labored in the second half to put the game out of reach. The result was never in doubt, not exactly, but the Green Wave, picked to finish last in the 11-team American Athletic Conference, hung around just long enough.
The Tar Heels led by 13 with about eight minutes to play and Tulane, playing its first game under head coach Mike Dunleavy, who spent 17 seasons coaching in the NBA, had at least a small speck of hope. Joel Berry, the junior guard, quickly quashed it with a 3-pointer, and the Tar Heels extended their lead in the final minutes.
Berry, like Jackson, scored more points than he ever had in college. He finished with 23 points. It was the first time that both Berry and Jackson had scored at least 20 points in the same game and, for this team, that was enough to create a little bit of history in a town full of it for the Tar Heels.
They won their 1982 national championship across the street, in the Superdome, and did so again in 1993. The stage wasn’t nearly as grand on Friday, but it was a strong start, nonetheless, given Jackson’s scoring and shooting, and Berry’s and Hick’s ability to limit his fouls.