Thomas, FIU face long odds in opener at No. 6 UNC
Isiah Thomas was midway through a question-and-answer session with some FIU alumni last month when someone stood up and put the Hall of Fame player on the spot. "So, how will you prepare for an opener against North Carolina?" FIU's new coach, to his credit, didn't hesitate before giving the guy his answer. "Well, Cinderella doesn't have to come in March. She can come in November," Thomas said. Everybody laughed. Thomas laughed. The event continued. The reality is, there are long shots, and then there's whatever FIU will be Monday night when the Golden Panthers open the Thomas era in the 2K Sports Classic at No. 6 North Carolina, the defending national champion and a popular pick to win it all again this season. Consider this stat: The Tar Heels won 34 games last season alone, while FIU has won 34 games in the last three seasons combined. "We like being underdogs," FIU guard Marvin Roberts said. "We're going to be underdogs all year. And we'll be the real underdogs on Monday, so we'll just play like we have nothing to lose." Real underdogs, indeed: One Las Vegas line favors Carolina by 30. The matchup, which seemed to be in jeopardy because FIU officials originally felt they agreed to play Ohio State in the opening round of the tournament, is tinged with obvious irony. Thomas' final college game was in 1981, when he led Indiana past North Carolina for the NCAA title. Which makes it fitting, naturally, that his first college game as a coach comes against the Tar Heels. "I don't know him real well," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "I was on the bench when he played his last college game and beat us in the national championship game in '81. Followed his career a great deal throughout his time in the NBA. ... I know probably a lot more of his accomplishments than he knows of mine, that's for sure." FIU only won 13 games last year, lost 20 for the third time in four seasons, and that's when the school decided to make a serious splash by hiring Thomas - giving him a chance to revive a coaching career that was slowed to a sputter during a troubled tenure with the New York Knicks. "What we've said to our guys all along is, it's about how we play together as a team and how to play together as a unit," 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." The odds are thickly stacked against FIU this season, despite the presence of a basketball icon on the sideline. Only one of the Golden Panthers' top four scorers is back from last season. Combine that with the regime change, and Williams didn't mind revealing that he has "no idea" what FIU will try Monday night. "I'm not trying to put their program down," Williams said. "Isiah wasn't the coach there last year. Doesn't do us any good to look at the tape from any games that they had last year." Thomas isn't all that concerned with North Carolina, either. Let's clarify that point: He's absolutely concerned with what the Tar Heels can, might and likely will do to run his team out of Chapel Hill. But Thomas' focus Monday night will be on watching his program take the first steps on what he knows will be a long road if it's to reach college basketball's top level. "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. ... The most important part is getting the kids ready to go in and face something they've never faced in their life. It's what they all dream of, but when they walk in, it'll be a different story."