CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP)—Isiah Thomas stood on the sideline and ordered his undersized Florida International team to spread the court against the defending national champions.
That’s when North Carolina’s Deon Thompson walked over and teasingly asked why Thomas had to make the bigger Tar Heels defend so much on the perimeter.
“He just started laughing and said, ‘Man, that’s the only thing I can do,”’ Thompson said.
Yes, the Tar Heels were too talented and just too big in their 88-72 victory over the Golden Panthers in the 2K Sports Classic on Monday night. And it was a reminder that Thomas could be in for a frustrating debut season with the long-struggling FIU program.
But for Thomas, it was a start.
“The thing I liked about our team was we fought,” Thomas said. “The first thing you’ve got to do in order to win is you’ve got to learn how to fight.”
Thompson scored 20 points to lead the sixth-ranked Tar Heels (1-0), who shot 56 percent and led by double digits much of the way to kick off their centennial season against Thomas—the Hall of Fame player and former NBA coach who inherits a program with nine straight losing seasons.
His debut came on the same day his 86-year-old mother, Mary, had open-heart surgery in Chicago. He spent Sunday with her, then arrived in Chapel Hill early Monday for the Golden Panthers’ shootaround at the Smith Center and planned to return to Chicago on Tuesday.
“My mom raised me basically to fight, just as I’m trying to put it in our team,” Thomas said. “Last night, when I was speaking to her, she just said she doesn’t want to die. And she’s going to fight to live. With that, she told me to go to work and fight for our team.”
Marvin Roberts had 18 points for the Golden Panthers (0-1), who shot 37 percent. North Carolina led 46-30 at halftime, then pushed the margin to 25 points in the first 5 minutes of the second half to eliminate any chance of a Hollywood-esque story line for Thomas.
Instead, the game offered a glimpse of what remains from the squad that rolled Michigan State in last season’s NCAA title game. While four starters are gone—including four-year star Tyler Hansbrough and fellow first-round NBA draft picks Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington—there’s still plenty of talent and, most notably, size on a squad that showed plenty of balance against the Golden Panthers.
There just isn’t all that much experience outside of Thompson and fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard, who missed much of last season with a foot injury.
“Last year’s guys, I’ve been with them ever since I’ve been here,” Thompson said. “We all knew each other and knew each other’s tendencies: where guys are going to go, how guys like to get shots and things like that. Now you just have no clue where that person is going to go, what he’s thinking in his mind or if he even knows the play. It’s definitely a big difference, but it’s also fun and exciting to experience something new.”
Thompson, the top returning scorer from last season, was 7 of 11 from the field and had 10 rebounds, while frontcourtmate Ed Davis added 13 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots. Ginyard chipped in 12 points, while Larry Drew II—the sophomore following Lawson at point guard—finished with seven points, six assists and two turnovers in 21 minutes.
Still, North Carolina looked ragged at times when the game was in hand, committing 26 turnovers to continue what coach Roy Williams said was a consistent theme through the preseason.
“For the most part, I thought we were active. We were trying hard,” Williams said. “We just weren’t very sharp. But it’s what you should expect this time of year.”
FIU made headlines when it hired Thomas, who was coming off a tumultuous stint with the NBA’s New York Knicks. The game also had its own mild dose of offseason controversy when FIU initially balked at playing North Carolina in the 2K Sports Classic, saying it had expected Thomas’ opener would come at Ohio State instead.
Thomas got a late start onto the court, barely walking out of the visiting tunnel before the national anthem had started. He walked across the court to the bench and was greeted with a handshake and a hug by Williams, who was on the bench as Dean Smith’s assistant when Thomas led Indiana past North Carolina for the 1981 NCAA championship in his final game as a college player.
“It’s been a big whirlwind,” FIU junior Phil Gary said. “He’s a Hall of Fame player and is trying to become a Hall of Fame coach. It’s been a big transition from just a regular coach to Isiah Thomas, but we’ve adjusted quick.”
North Carolina offered up its own reminder of the past. The Tar Heels wore throwback uniforms to honor the 1957 national championship team as part of is yearlong celebration of its 100th season, complete with the unusual sight of some red on the waistband of the shorts and the neckline of the jersey.
The Classic benefits Coaches vs. Cancer.