Tomorrow at high noon, a hardwood matchup of historic proportions will tip-off in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill: the first-ever regular season basketball visit of the East Carolina Pirates to Chapel Hill to play the North Carolina Tar Heels.
As you know doubt already know, the buzz and anticipation surrounding this game has the entire state on the edge of their seats. Office holiday party talk has been dominated by little else than position-by-position analysis of matchups for this once-in-a-lifetime encounter.
Or. . . not.
OK, on its merits there’s little reason to think the actual game will be much different from the other December blowouts in the Smith Center that have become a holiday tradition.
Still, it’s worth recognizing that UNC and ECU do have basketball history, and one that is more significant than you might remember.
In spring 1993, I happened to have a chance to ask Bill Guthridge, assistant coach on the 1993 national champion Tar Heels, which game during the tournament run had made him nervous. I guessed he might answer with the name of the Sweet Sixteen opponent, but instead he said “East Carolina,” the Tar Heels’ first-round opponent.
Why would that be? The Pirates, after all, were, at 10-17, a surprise entry to the tournament field, having upset the field in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament.
Guthridge gave two reasons: First, Carolina was coming off a loss in the ACC Tournament final to Georgia Tech, and he didn’t know how the team would respond. Second, point guard Derrick Phelps, who had suffered a bruised tailbone in the ACC Tournament semifinal against Virginia and missed the Georgia Tech game, would be returning to action, and they weren’t sure how well he’d be able to play in the national tournament.
Guthridge might have added that the game was played in Winston-Salem—where the Tar Heels earlier that year had been humiliated in a 26-point loss to Wake Forest.
Carolina ended up winning the game in fairly ho-hum manner, 85-65. Carolina led by just 11 points at halftime, and the game never got out of hand. Phelps came off the bench to play 14 minutes, registering six points and two steals. More impressively, he took a charge and also converted a dunk despite playing with several protective pads.
It wasn’t a memorable game, but it was a win. Carolina then looked much more impressive in blowing out Rhode Island by 45 points in the second round game two days later, with Phelps returned to the starting lineup. Carolina went on to play championship-caliber basketball the rest of the tournament.
And with that, your short history of the UNC-ECU basketball rivalry is a wrap.
There is of course a longer history about why (apart from a one-off in 1953) Carolina has not scheduled ECU before in the regular season. It dates back to Dean Smith’s long-standing philosophy of not playing out-of-conference in-state opponents. Why not? First, because Carolina would have nothing to gain from such games in terms of prestige and reputation of the program. Second, because Smith thought that if he started playing one in-state opponent, he’d be under pressure to play all of them and the basketball matchups would turn into a political hot potato—as has been the case historically in the UNC-ECU football series.
It’s also worth mentioning that during most of Smith’s tenure, Carolina played very few true non-conference home games in Carmichael Auditorium. There wasn’t much need to figure out who to play in half a dozen preseason games in Chapel Hill. Further, Carolina then was in the habit of playing in Greensboro regularly as well as in various doubleheaders in Charlotte, giving Tar Heels fans in other parts of the state an opportunity to see the team live without stooping to play the in-state schools.
This policy began to relax in the 1990s, largely for the same reason Carolina is playing ECU tomorrow: the emergence of members of the UNC basketball family as coaches at the in-state schools. Carolina played UNC-Asheville during the 1994-95 and 95-96 seasons when they were coached by former Tar Heel assistant and player Randy Wiel, the start of a semi-regular series that has continued since. Then Carolina under Guthridge gave Appalachian State a pair of games when another former player, Buzz Peterson, took over that program.
For a school like App State to get to play Carolina, anywhere, is a coup for that program, and Smith, Guthridge, and now Roy Williams are willing to hand out games to in-state opponents to friendly coaches as not just a goodwill gesture but a sign of solidarity.
ECU is now coached by former Tar Heel guard Jeff Lebo, a three and a half year starter and one of the most fundamentally sound players Smith ever coached. At 6-1 (3-1 vs. Division I opponents), ECU is ranked a respectable (by December ACC opponent standards) #150 in the Sagarin ratings.
The likelihood is they will be 6-2 come Saturday afternoon. If the Pirates play hard and perhaps manage to cause the lunchtime Tar Heel crowd a few uncomfortable moments, Lebo will probably not be too upset.