- Dana O'Neil, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- They are asked about the sight lines and the wind variables, what it will be like to play in front of President Obama and what it means to play for the nation’s military.
They’re asked about everything, that is, except the game.
And therein lies the rub.
The spectacle of the Carrier Classic is enormous, an outdoor basketball game subjected to the elements, played atop an historic aircraft carrier in front of the commander-in-chief.
At the end of the day, though, this is still a basketball game between No. 1 North Carolina and Michigan State (ESPN, 7 ET).
And it counts.
“There is definitely a lot going on,’’ Michigan State guard Keith Appling admitted. “You have to try to keep it in perspective and focus, but it’s hard.’’
The reality is, college basketball operates differently than college football. One loss on Nov. 11 does not destroy a team for March 11.
Or as UNC coach Roy Williams put it, “It’s a big game but it’s one game and as long as we’re better on Dec. 11 and Jan. 11, we’re OK.’’
But these are two teams that come to the USS Carl Vinson on disparate but equally critical paths.
North Carolina, the nearly unanimous No. 1 team in the preseason, will try to prove itself worthy of expectations. A season ago, the Tar Heels started in the top 10, fell apart and regrouped over the final two months. Their dash to the Elite Eight, coupled with the return of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller put the bull's-eye squarely on the back of a team and a program accustomed to being a target.
The Heels were allowed to grow into themselves last season, to survive early mistakes for late successes. They won’t have that luxury this season, not with all this scrutiny.
“We’re a team that’s going to face adversity -- and right now, that’s everyone expecting us to win every game,’’ sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall said. “That’s our goal. We’d love to do that, but we also know how hard that is to do. Right now we just have to concentrate on being ourselves and playing our game.’’
Meantime, no one knows quite what to make of Michigan State, Tom Izzo included.
He raised his hand giddily when his team was asked to play in the Carrier Classic and raised it again when the Spartans were asked to be one of four teams invited to the Champions Classic.
In real terms, that means Michigan State will open its season aboard an aircraft carrier in San Diego against No. 1 North Carolina and play its second game four days later in New York against No. 6 Duke.
“Completely insane? Yeah, that works. Insane. Four-letter word in front of it, call me whatever you want,’’ Izzo said.
“Coach Izzo always promises that we’ll play a tough schedule,’’ senior forward Draymond Green said. “That’s one of the reasons I came to Michigan State. And you can tell, he’s a man of his word.’’
But the question: Has Izzo bit off more than he can chew with this team and this schedule? Like North Carolina, Michigan State started last season with big expectations, ranked second in the preseason behind only Duke.
Unlike the Tar Heels, the Spartans free-fell and never recovered. They finished 19-15 and 9-9 in the Big Ten, losing to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Green and Appling are the only two players to average 20 minutes per game from that team and return this year. Seven guys on the roster have yet to play a single minute for the Spartans.
“I really have no idea what we’ll see,’’ Izzo said. “And they know exactly what they have, so that’s the hard part for me. We’ve been very good in practice and this group is really together. I like their chemistry. I just hope the best players don’t win, because they have the best players.’’
Izzo knows what he’s concerned most about -- what every opponent that faces Carolina is concerned about: transition offense. The Spartans might be the loosest offense in the Big Ten, but they are no match for the Tar Heels in the open floor.
Michigan State has to try and get into the halfcourt and then rely on its bread and butter -- rebounding. The Spartans led the nation in rebounding in 2009 and 2010, back-to-back Final Four years.
Last season, they were 48th in the nation ... and out in the first round.
“We have to hit the boards hard,’’ Izzo said. “But we could have some funny shots here with some instant offense off the rebounds.’’
So maybe it is all about the sight lines.