The first noticeable difference here is the darkness, at 3 in the afternoon. And, at this time of year, the other noticeable differences are the tall, lanky men-children coming through Anchorage International Airport. People wait for them, holding signs that say: "Shootout?"
The Great Alaska Shootout starts here Friday and this college basketball tournament that opens the season is no turkey. It is, said Bob Vogt, last year's tournament chairman who was at the airport helping sort out the arrivals this time, "the greatest thing to happen in Alaska since statehood."
This is the third time around for the Shootout, the first time that it should not need financial assistance from the state legislature, and this time the field includes five of the top 20 teams in The Associated Press preseason poll: Georgetown, Missouri, North Carolina, Louisiana State and Arkansas.
Missouri, which returns four starters and plenty of size from the team that defeated Notre Dame in last year's NCAA tournament, is given a slight edge to succeed North Carolina State and Kentucky as Shootout winner.
Georgetown, ranked No. 16 in both wire-service polls, opens at Friday midnight (EST) against Nicholls (La.) State, a former Division II power that is playing its first game as a Division I school. The other openers pair North Carolina against Alaska-Anchorage, the host school, with a Hoya-Tar Heel semifinal likely; Missouri against Arkansas, and Louisiana State against Colgate.
So, why are five of the best basketball teams spending Thanksgiving weekend in south-central Alaska?
"It's quite selfish reasons," said Vogt. "It gives them a chance to play three extra games, and against strong competition."
"The No. 1 reason? Probably the extra games," said Missouri Coach Norm Stewart, agreeing that one victory here could give a team a 20-11 record that looks better than 19-9. That 20th victory is recruiting magic.
The NCAA allows teams that play games in tournaments and games involving the universities of Hawaii and Alaska to exclude them from counting in the 27-game maximum regular-season limit, but also allows them to be used in win-loss records.
They receive expenses from the tournament promoters, guaranteed by the state legislature. After the first tournament lost $17,000, the state appropriated $56,000 for expenses not covered by gate receipts. Last year's tourney lost $6,000, according to current Chairman Mike Freeman, and this one is expected to turn a profit.
The tournament is played on an Army base, Fort Richardson, and the seating capacity there is 4,000. The facilities are not modern -- anybody who's been to Fort Myer Gym knows the picture -- and the townspeople are not excited about driving the 10 miles to the base.
The tournament promoters are licking their chops over the prospects for a new $25 million city arena, ground to be broken next summer, which is to be ready for the 1983 Shootout.
Craig Sharpe, an Anchorage businessman, has no problem going to Fort Richardson. "We go because we have nothing else to do," he said. "It's very well accepted because we want to see it succeed."
This latest story of Alaskan prosperity takes even greater proportions considering the background of the host school and the circumstances surrounding the tournament's formation.
It joined the NAIA, then the NCAA's Division II and hired Bob Rachal, a salesman-type coach from Central Florida Junior College, in 1976. He recruited heavily from the Lower 48, so overzealously, in fact, that the NCAA found UAA guilty of recruiting violations and handed the Seawolves two years probation.
Rachal left the seeds for this tournament and the unenviable record of not having one of his players graduate when he left in 1978.
The UAA administration found a replacement in Gary Bliss, an assistant at Evansville who ran the NCAA Division II tournament there for many years. Since then, the Shootout has brightened the winters here when the current six hours of daylight are reduced to three at the winter solstice Dec. 23.
Georgetown Coach John Thompson said he would start Fred Brown at point guard, but that the freshman would play that position only on offense, lining up as a small forward on defense.
"I cannot sacrifice his rebounding at this point," Thompson said. "He's playing with guys who have experience."
Thompson said forward Mike Hancock, who may be the Hoyas' best rebounder, will come off the bench. The coach called Hancock and Jeff Bullis, who will start at power forward, "just about equal."