Without Hicks, UNC finds it hard to rebound against Duke

The Tar Heels were forced to play smaller than usual because of an injury to starting power forward Isaiah Hicks. who suffered a strained left hamstring at practice on Wednesday.

Mark Dolejs—USA Today Sports
Feb 9

Of all the numbers that blend together on a crowded postgame college basketball stat sheet, one set stood out as though it was highlighted in bright yellow following North Carolina’s 86-78 loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday.It could be found at the bottom of the rebounding column, the one that showed the Blue Devils pulling down 24 to just 23 for the taller Tar Heels.Under most circumstances, the difference of a single rebound isn’t the determining factor in the outcome of a game. And it wasn’t in this one either, at least directly, despite 17 lead changes and nine ties.But considering that UNC began the night as the best rebounding team in the country, dominating the boards by an average of 13.7 per game, the cumulative effect of the virtual rebounding standoff was a major reason why it is no longer in sole possession of first place in the ACC standings. The Tar Heels are now 0-3 in games in which they were outrebounded this season.”It was a relatively low possession game, even though both teams shot 52-53 percent,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “There wasn’t that many misses, but we need to rebound the ball better. That’s a strength for us, rebounding and inside scoring and we need to do a better job than we did tonight.”Part of the reason for the Tar Heels’ troubles on the boards can be traced to Duke, which played with the tenacity of a team that desperately needed the win after getting off to a slow start in the conference schedule.The other half of the equation, however, is that UNC (21-5, 9-3 ACC) was forced to play smaller than usual because of an injury to starting power forward Isaiah Hicks. The 6-foot-9, 245-pound senior suffered a strained left hamstring at practice on Wednesday.Hicks averages 12.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. His replacement Luke Maye, a sophomore making his first career start, managed only two rebounds in his 20 minutes of action while struggling to defend against Duke’s quicker, more versatile frontcourt players.”I wanted to get in there and play to my strengths to the best of my ability,” said Maye, who found out he’d be starting about 45 minutes before tipoff and finished with eight points. “They were just better than us tonight.”Maye wasn’t the only big man Tar Heel that got held in check by the Blue Devils (19-5, 7-4).Starting center Kennedy Meeks was held to nine points and five rebounds — or about 4½ fewer than his average — a stat line Williams attributed to his big man’s lack of movement on the low post. Freshman Tony Bradley, coming off arguably his best performance against a conference opponent last Sunday against Notre Dame, managed only three rebounds.UNC was led on the boards by 6-6 junior Theo Pinson, who was playing for the first time since rolling his ankle four games ago. But only one of his rebounds came on the offensive end. As a team, the Tar Heels got only seven offensive rebounds — only half as many as the usual.”That was the true turning point in the game,” Pinson said. “Offensive rebounding is one thing we do well.”Though Williams refused to use Hicks’ absence as an excuse, saying that “North Carolina still had to play Duke,” the lack of that effective second big man in the lineup affected the way the Tar Heels attacked their rival.Their smaller lineup with Pinson in Hicks’ spot turned into to decided advantage for the Blue Devils, especially after Tatum began to assert himself offensively in the second half — when he scored all 19 of his points.”We just had to play small ball,” point guard Joel Berry said. “Sometimes you have to face adversity. We wish we would have had Isaiah in there. I think he would have made a big difference.”Hicks said he injured himself when his foot slipped, causing him to do a split, after coming down from a dunk during a fastbreak drill. He held out hope of playing on Thursday, doing some stretches during pregame warmups, and said he felt like he was “good to go.” But the training staff and Williams decided against playing him, leading to a difficult night watching from the bench.”As a player, no matter what game it is, you don’t want to miss one,” said Hicks, whose status is listed as day-to-day. “It’s pretty tough, especially with the results. Anything I could have done to help the team would have been better.”