Updated: August 25, 2009, 9:11 PM ET FIU wants to open vs. Ohio State
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By Dana O'Neil
Florida International will pull out of the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament unless tournament organizers allow FIU to open with Ohio State instead of North Carolina, as the Golden Panthers had expected.
FIU officials were equal parts incensed and stunned when they received an e-mailed press release of the Tar Heels' schedule, listing Florida International as the season opener. Athletic director Pete Garcia said the school had been approached by the Gazelle Group, the tourney organizers, about switching its opener from the Buckeyes to the defending national champions but refused. "We knew nothing about this until the press release from North Carolina today," Garcia said. "We told them last week we would not change the game and had never agreed to this."
Gazelle Group president Rick Giles said that he has a contract, signed by Garcia, which stipulates that FIU would play either Ohio State or North Carolina, leaving the choice at the discretion of the Gazelle Group. He said that is the way his company has written contracts for 15 years and fully expects the school to honor its agreement. "I would be stunned if Isiah Thomas' first act as a head coach was to break a contract," Giles said, although Thomas pointed out that the contract, signed in November 2008, was agreed upon before he arrived at FIU.
Florida International contends that though the original contract offered an either/or option, the school had agreed to open its season with Ohio State and had gone so far as to publicize that information. In an August AP report, new head coach Thomas is quoted about the opener with the Buckeyes.
"Big Ten country," he said. "If at some point and time you're going to be able to compete with the big boys, you might as well jump right into the fire and get started." Thomas said he was completely caught off-guard by the switch.
"I had no idea," he said. "No one contacted me, our athletic director, no one. Maybe in 2010, 2011 we can play North Carolina, but not this year." Steve Kirschner, North Carolina's associate athletic director for athletic communications, said: "We will play whoever they tell us to play.''
Kirschner said UNC contacted the Gazelle Group because there had been some discussion about the Tar Heels' opening opponent and questioned whether the schedule should read, "TBD.'' But the Gazelle Group told them to go ahead and release the opener as Florida International.
The tournament format calls for four preselected hosts -- Ohio State, North Carolina, California and Syracuse -- automatically advancing to the semifinals at Madison Square Garden, regardless of what happens in the event's early round.
FIU is slated to host subregional games on Nov. 20, 21 and 23 at its on-campus arena, with James Madison, Murray State and North Carolina Central coming in for round-robin play. The other subregional for teams not going to Madison Square Garden is at Albany, where the Great Danes of the America East will host Robert Morris, Detroit and Alcorn State.
Ohio State will play Alcorn State on Nov. 9, in the slot FIU wants. A preseason publication that has been on the Buckeyes' athletic Web site for several weeks did make reference to playing FIU on that date.
Garcia said if necessary the Golden Panthers would look for other teams to fill the hole in their schedule.
"We will not be bullied into a unilateral decision to play North Carolina after we already agreed to play Ohio State," Garcia said.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Florida International threatens to pull out of Coaches vs. Cancer Classic - ESPN