Near and yet so far apart. That seems to describe the theme running through the North Carolina-Georgetown game to determine this season's college basketball champion.
The two schools, which meet tonight in the Superdome are about as close geographically as finalists in the National Collegiate Athletic Assocation's tournament generally come -- some 300 miles apart.
Figuratively, their coaches are even closer, at least in some respects. North Carolina's Dean Smith had Georgetown's John Thompson as an assistant on the coaching staff of the 1976 US Olympic team.
Both teams even have an All-America from the same town, Gastonia, N.C. For the Tar Heels it's forward James Worthy, and for Georgtown's Hoyas guard Eric (Sleepy) Floyd.
Whatever else makes the two schools similar, however, is largely overshadowed by some sharp contrasts.
North Carolina is a basketball blueblood, the tradition-rich standard bearer of the prestigious Atlantic Coast Conference. Georgetown is the ''Beast of the East,'' the small, Jesuit school in Washington, D.C. that has shed its weakling image to become a major force in the young but impressive Big East Conference.
North Carolina has long been synonymous with topflight basketball. Since 1962, Smith has perpetuated a proud athletic legacy passed along by 14 other head coaches, all of whom compiled winning records with the Tar Heels. His teams have won nine ACC titles and seven NCAA regional crowns -- a tremendous record marred only by the fact that they have never yet gone all the way in the tournament.
Thompson, on the other hand, found only a memory when he took over at Georgetown in 1972. The Hoyas had not competed in the NCAA tournament since 1943, when they advanced to the finals before losing to Wyoming. What Thompson inherited was a 3-23 team that had hit rock bottom. He immediately became a highly visible centerpiece around which to rebuild the program.
When Big John talked, people in the Washington area listened, and not just because of his commanding physical stature. The 6 ft. 10 in. Thompson enjoyed the respect of his basketball community, having led John Carroll High School to a D.C. schoolboy record of 55 straight wins before going on to play college and pro ball, and having later been a successful high school coach in the District.