New Orleans — 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.
Developing players other schools passed over, he got the Hoya program into high gear. The team has been in one post-season playoff after another since making the 1975 tournament field.
Atlantic Coast Conference schools were among those showing little inclination to recruit some of Georgetown's present upperclassmen, a fact that makes the pending showdown all the more interesting.
Fans wearing the Carolina blue claim the ACC is the country's best basketball conference. In another corner of the Superdome, however, Georgetown fans beg to differ. The ACC was indeed one of two conferences to win more than two-thirds of its games against outside major opponents this season, but the Big East was the other, and actually did a little better (.805 to .744).
It's appropriate, then, that the best teams from the best leagues are meeting in the season's grand finale.
North Carolina, 31-2 including its tournament wins so far, has been the nation's most consistent team, a fact recognized by those who voted the Tar Heels No. 1 in both final regular season polls. Georgetown, now 30-6, started slowly, dropping two of three games in the Great Alaska Shootout, and later hit a midseason slump. But for the past month or so the Hoyas have looked almost unstoppable.
Most observers regard Pat Ewing, who seriously considered going to North Carolina, as the player most responsible for Georgetown's present position. Thompson, who coached Ewing at last summer's National Sports Festival, has taken great care to bring along the seven-footer gradually, both on and off the court. Many writers have criticized the way the coach shelters his prize freshman, and the whole team for that matter, withholding players from interviews and housing them far from game sites. Georgetown has stayed in Biloxi, Miss., for games here , a location John says provides peace of mind.
Thompson, of course, knows that Ewing could make Georgetown what coach Lefty Driesell always wanted Maryland to be, the UCLA of the East. He is a franchise type of player, not just because of his size, but what he does with it -- blocking shots, slamming dunks, and generally playing as physically as any man his size has ever done.
That Louisville's Cardinals held him to eight points in Saturday's semifinal game was not particularly unusual, since Ewing often draws extra attention. The way they did it was, for he never managed any rim-shakin', earthquakin' dunks, and he even had two shots rejected. But although he wasn't much of a factor offensively, his defensive reputation obviously proceeded him, for the Cardinals never loosened up and shot a dismal 39 percent from the field -- this in a 50-46 contest that may go down as one of the most ferocious defensive games ever played.
Before Saturday's semifinals, there was much discussion about what effect playing in the cavernous Superdome, and before an NCAA record 61,000 spectators, would have on shooting. Houston guard Lynden Rose felt the unusually spacious surroundings would have little impact, noting that ''The court's the same. The goals aren't going to move.''
Certainly North Carolina found that to be the case in hitting nearly 60 percent of its shots to elimiate the Cougars 68-63. Houston didn't fare nearly so well, playing a game that defied logic. For example, team scoring leader Rob Williams, a guard with a splendid shooting touch, attempted just eight shots and made none of them. This mysterious development coupled with the Cougars' inability to get untracked (they fell behind 14-0, came back to tie it at 29, but then went cold again to begin the second half) was enough to set up the North Carolina-Georgetown showdown.
The feeling persists that Smith has waited long enough to reach the winner's circle. He's guided North Carolina to the championship game three other times, including last year, and always come up empty -- leaving the Tar Heels still looking for their first NCAA crown since the famous triple overtime victory over Wilt Chamberlain's Kansas team in 1957.
The challenge now is to find a way to beat a team that seems to thrive on an us-against-the-world atmosphere. It's easy to imagine Georgetown getting what it likes: a chance to play the role of a not-so-lovable spoiler. Thompson has never coached in an NCAA title game, but he knows firsthand what Smith teams tend to do in every situation.
Basically it boils down to strength against strength, which means the ''men at work'' sign will go up under the baskets as Ewing tangles with Carolina's twin 6-9 towers, Worthy and Sam Perkins. It's just the kind of cymbal crash the season should end on.