Thursday, December 22, 2005

UNC To End Pacific Time Zone Games

On Wednesday night, USC upset #17 North Carolina 74–59 in the Los Angeles Sports Arena.  Some viewed the loss as an inevitable down game for the young Tar Heels.  However, the defeat was just the latest in Carolina’s ongoing struggles on the west coast.  As a result, the program has decided to stop playing games in the Pacific time zone.


With the latest defeat, UNC has dropped five of its last six contests on Pacific time.  Last year, the eventual national champion Tar Heels opened the season in Oakland against a Santa Clara squad that ultimately finished 15–16.  Naturally, the Broncos dominated in a 77–66 stunner.  The upset particularly inspired SCU alumnus Steve Nash, leading to something far more improbable: a guy from Canada being the NBA MVP.


The Santa Clara game was part of the Pete Newell Challenge, in which Carolina also lost to California in December 1998.  That 1998–99 season ended in Seattle with a shocking 76–74 first round defeat to Weber State.  The upset ensured that the name of Harold “The Show” Arcenaux, who scored 36 points for the Wildcats, would be part of “Where Are They Now?” features every March for eternity.  UNC also was hampered by the pronunciation of its opponent.  Carolina has no problem with adversaries pronounced “WEB-er,” as shown by its title-game wins over Chris Webber and Bruce Weber in 1993 and 2005, respectively.  However, the Heels were confused by playing “WEE-ber” State and suffered an early exit.


Even legendary coach Dean Smith was not immune to such troubles.  His final game in the Pacific time zone was a 1995 Final Four showdown with Arkansas in Seattle.  The Razorbacks came out on top, 75–68.  The Emerald City was also the site for a 1988 regional final defeat to Arizona.  In 1968, Smith’s first coaching experience in the NCAA championship game resulted in a 78–55 thumping at the hands of UCLA in the Los Angeles Sports Arena.  The Final Four returned there four years later, as UNC fell to Florida State in the semifinals.  Needless to say, Coach Smith did not collaborate with Randy Newman in writing “I Love L.A.”


Since 1989, Carolina’s only victory on Pacific time occurred in December 2000.  The Heels left Pauley Pavilion with an 80–70 triumph over UCLA.  However, that victory occurred with Matt Doherty as head coach.  With the Doherty era, none of the normal rules of UNC basketball apply.


Interestingly, the Tar Heels have excelled when traveling beyond the Pacific time zone.  Last November, Carolina rebounded from the Santa Clara setback to win the Maui Invitational.  UNC also won in Maui in 1999, and in 1997 the Heels claimed their third Great Alaska Shootout championship.  As a result, the school’s athletic department is lobbying to hold a future ACC tournament in Tahiti.


However, last night’s defeat proved that the Pacific time zone is a black hole for Carolina.  At USC, whose football bandwagon is as large as the Titanic, the basketball program is apparently still a rumor.  The visit from the defending national champions drew less than 6000 spectators to the Sports Arena.  Approximately 1000 of those reportedly were lured with a false promise that they would get to dance on the court with Matt Leinart.  However, geography ensured that the favored Heels had no chance.  As a result, the program will refuse any Pacific time zone games for future seasons.


The decision could cause a change in philosophy for head coach Roy Williams, who has always recruited well in the Golden State.  Carolina traditionally plays a “homecoming game” for its upperclassmen, and this year’s powerhouse recruiting class includes Californians Alex Stepheson from North Hollywood and Deon Thompson from Torrance.  In next year’s UNC media guide, do not be surprised if Stepheson is listed as a Hollywood, Florida native.  Also, Thompson’s hometown of Torrance will be described as a suburb (a very distant one) of Cleveland.


Fortunately for the Tar Heels, no other trips to the Pacific time zone are scheduled this season.  However, if the young team reaches the NCAA tournament, it had better avoid the Oakland region.  The pod system means that a first round trip to San Diego is unlikely.  However, two wins would bring them to the Bay Area.  Overcoming inexperience is one thing.  Defeating the time zone gods is an entirely different matter.