North Carolina may have to battle its struggling mid-major opponent for attention as the Tar Heels open their season as defending national champions.
That’s because the sixth-ranked Heels’ opponent, Florida International, will be led by Isiah Thomas in his collegiate coaching debut Monday night in Chapel Hill.
The last time Thomas was involved in a college basketball game, he also faced Tar Heels, scoring 23 points in the 1981 NCAA championship game to lead Indiana to a 63-50 win. Current North Carolina coach Roy Williams was an assistant with those Heels.
Thomas followed up that title with a Hall of Fame playing career in the NBA, but he hasn’t approached that level of success on the sidelines. After three mediocre seasons as coach of the Indiana Pacers, Thomas was an executive with the Knicks from 2003-08, coaching them for the final two of five straight losing seasons on his watch.
Controversy also followed Thomas in New York, as he was a defendant in a sexual harassment lawsuit involving a former Knicks employee in 2007. He was also hospitalized for an accidental overdose of sleeping pills a few months after his firing.
Thomas is determined to improve his coaching legacy at FIU, even donating his first year’s salary to the school as he tries to lead the program to its first winning season since 1999-2000.
“I like taking some from the bottom and building it to the top,” Thomas said after his hiring. “There’s a lot of risk in that and there is also a lot of reward in that. But that’s how I grew up. I want to take FIU to the next level and I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I’m willing to pay the price to do that.”
A trip to the Dean Smith Center for the opener of the 2K Sports Classic won’t be the easiest way to start, and there was originally some dispute about the matchup as FIU believed it was supposed to face Ohio State.
Thomas, though, said he thinks his team can compete with anyone even though it returns just one of its top four scorers - forward Nikola Gacesa - after going 7-11 in the Sun Belt Conference.
The Golden Panthers (13-20) faced two ranked teams last season, losing by 35 at UCLA and 38 at Georgetown.
“Well, Cinderella doesn’t have to come in March. She can come in November,” Thomas said.
“If we can stay within our game, and if we can do the things we want defensively and offensively, I think we’ll be able to play with any team in the country this year, not just North Carolina.”
No team could stay with the Tar Heels (34-4) in the NCAA tournament last season, as North Carolina won six straight games by double digits to earn the program’s fifth national championship.
There is plenty of doubt going into this season over who will fill the voids left by departed stars Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington. Senior forward Deon Thompson is the lone returning starter, but North Carolina still garnered a preseason ranking that implies the team could contend for a third straight trip to the Final Four.
“It’s unbelievable to me, it really is,” said Williams, whose squad didn’t get nearly as much respect after suffering major personnel losses following its 2005 national title. The Tar Heels, unranked in the ’06 preseason poll, went 23-8 that season and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“I told our kids it’s probably because we made everybody look so bad in ’06 that they won’t get caught that way again,” Williams said. “That part is a huge difference. We could beat the drum that, ‘We’re going to show them.’”
This season, North Carolina has some veteran help to lead its young talent as it tries to live up to expectations. Along with Thompson, fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard returns after missing nearly all of last season with a foot injury.
Sophomore Larry Drew II figures to step in for Lawson at point guard, while sophomore big man Ed Davis will try to fill the shoes of Hansbrough under the basket.
Davis is part of what could be a deep frontcourt that features a trio of 6-foot-10 freshman, all of them McDonald’s All-Americans, in John Henson and twins David and Travis Wear. Tyler Zeller, a 7-foot sophomore, is also primed for improvement after an injury-riddled freshman season.
Williams said he has “no idea” how to prepare his team for FIU given the coaching change, but Thomas seems ready for what is expected to be a lopsided affair.
“It’ll be a very teachable moment,” Thomas said. “So many times in life, you run into that immovable object or you get knocked down. When you get knocked down, you’ve got to find a way to get back up.”