FIU reluctance to play Heels is puzzling

STAFF WRITERAugust 27, 2009 

Florida International still is expected to open the Coaches vs. Cancer basketball tournament against North Carolina on Nov. 9, said Rick Giles, president of the company that set the matchup.

But if the Golden Panthers opt to pull out of the season-opening basketball tourney because they don't want to play the defending national champion Tar Heels, it appears the Gazelle Group will have quite a few other options.

"We've had a number of calls today from teams willing to step into FIU's shoes," Giles said. "... But we're not at that point in the process."

Giles said he is perplexed by FIU's angst over playing the Tar Heels at the Smith Center. He said the contract, signed in 2008, well before Isaiah Thomas was named head coach, is clear that the Gazelle Group has "sole authority" to choose, among other things, opponents during the tournament. "The contract was clear that FIU's first-round opponent would be either UNC or Ohio State," he said.

FIU athletic director Pete Garcia could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but he told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he expected the Golden Panthers to play at Ohio State, and that he felt like his team was being bullied by the organizers of the tournament because of the late change.

A team spokesman said Tuesday that the school had gotten legal counsel involved to see if it could get out of the game.

Giles said playing the Tar Heels "is a great opportunity for FIU; it's great exposure to tip off the season against the defending national champion. That's a hard opportunity to come by."

Plus, pulling out of the tournament would mean giving up the three home games that follow the one against UNC. The NCAA allows tournaments like this one to count four games as two in the overall "games-played" tally. So if FIU pulls out, it not only faces legal ramifications for breaking a contract but the prospect of losing revenue by only being able to play two games in place of the tournament -- if it can find new opponents.

Giles said he's still not clear about why the Golden Panthers don't want to play UNC. According to ESPN.com, after the opening game, FIU had planned a trip to Monmouth, which is closer to Columbus, Ohio, than Chapel Hill. Other reports suggest Garcia didn't like the way he found out about the game switch.

Still, FIU's reaction is strange, because it's not like facing Ohio State would make for a significantly different outcome. Yes, the Tar Heels feature one of the top recruiting classes in the country, return some experience from the title team and are already being projected as a pre-season top-five team. But the Buckeyes return five starters from a squad that went 22-11 last season, including Evan Turner, who led the Big Ten in scoring.

So for FIU, a minor mid-major that is in rebuilding mode at best, the opponent swap is probably the difference between losing by 25 (or more) and 15 (or more). It's the difference between traveling 828 miles to Chapel Hill rather than 1,150 to Columbus.

And in getting a few extra fans to tune into the ESPNU matchup, which will mark Thomas' debut as FIU's head coach, rather than flipping the channel.

Giles said that come Nov. 9, he believes FIU will be playing the Tar Heels.

As for UNC, it plans to play whoever shows up.

robbi.pickeral@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8944

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