College Basketball Nation: Carrier Classic

It was a grand idea, and for one night, it lived up to the dream.

The first-ever Carrier Classic managed to be all things at once -- simultaneously a somber, Presidential-level celebration of America's armed forces and a quirky, eyeball-attracting stunt. It was exactly what the historically limp open to the college basketball season needed in 2011, the kind of thing that makes the casual fan sit up and take notice, but it was also more than that. When the Pacific sun went down and the lights went up ... I mean, has college basketball ever been played in a more beautiful setting?

[+] EnlargeCarl Vinson
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireMichigan State and North Carolina played on the USS Carl Vinson to open the 2011-12 season.
No wonder we all wanted to go back for seconds. In 2012, when the Carrier Classic idea was renewed, it wasn't alone. Not only would San Diego State and Syracuse reprise North Carolina-Michigan State aboard the USS Midway, Florida and Georgetown would play off the coast of Jacksonville aboard the USS Bataan while Ohio State took on Marquette on the USS Yorktown outside Charleston, S.C. What was once a moon-shot idea was now a bonafide trend. College basketball was welding its annual November launch to the side of large warships, logistical complications be damned.

We all know what happened next. Logistics -- namely the weather -- won. As it turns out, it is quite difficult to play basketball aboard aircraft carriers docked at sea. Because, you know, water. Thanks to various treacherous forms of condensation, which tend to make hardwood basketball floors rather unsafe, San Diego State-Syracuse had to be postponed while Ohio State-Marquette and Florida-Georgetown were cancelled. Concerns about player safety were raised, and rightfully so. My colleague Myron Medcalf said it was time for college basketball to get off the boat.

A few months later, everyone is officially off said boat. Following this week's announcement of Oregon and Georgetown's plans to play in the second annual Armed Forces Classic, one couldn't help but notice the fact that no aircraft carrier games had been announced. Yahoo!'s Jeff Eisenberg asked Morale Entertainment (which organized the first Carrier Classic) and officials representing the USS Yorktown and USS Midway about the lack of plans, and all of them confirmed they are not planning aircraft carrier games in 2013:
"Hosting the SDSU-Syracuse game last year was a huge source of pride for both the USS Midway Museum and San Diego," USS Midway Museum marketing director Scott McGaugh said. "We also experienced firsthand the logistical challenges and oceanfront weather variables that make the concept difficult to reliably execute. So we've decided to take a year and evaluate various options based on our first year's experience."

At this late date, with most teams' schedules nearing completion, it would take a drastic last-minute moon-shot to get another aircraft carrier game in under the wire. In other words: It isn't happening.

This is not a bad thing. Sure, the original Carrier Classic was awesome, and I will always be the first person to support any combination of "basketball" and "hilariously large displays of U.S. military strength." But even the first carrier game, as beautiful as it was, suffered its fair share of hitches, too. In any case, college basketball's first week is in profoundly better shape than it was when the Carrier idea was first hatched. We have the tip-off marathon, the Champions Classic, and the aforementioned Armed Forces Classic, which preserves the benefits of playing in front of our men and women in uniform at a far-flung military base while also allowing the basketball to be played indoors, the way god and/or James Naismith intended it. Early season gimmicks are all well and good, but gimmicks shouldn't define the sport, either. If you want to build a lasting audience, thrilling basketball is more important than any setting could ever be.

After last year's unmitigated disaster, there will not be many tears shed over the loss of aircraft carrier games. That's OK with me. The dream was real for one night, but maybe it should have stopped there. Real life always gets in the way.
On Wednesday night, I was midway through NBATV's tremendous documentary "The Dream Team" when the subject of the film changed from team camaraderie and overwhelming success to a discussion of the brief media backlash at the time from those who believed the Dream Team was too good. I was 7 years old in 1992, and it never occurred to me that the Dream Team wasn't the best thing in the history of the world. But here I was, learning there was actually a backlash to the Dream Team. A backlash! Against the Dream Team!

It made me realize, not for the first time, one undeniable truth about any good thing in sports, culture, politics, you name it: The backlash is coming. There will always be a backlash.

I'll admit that it had might well apply to the news, reported Friday afternoon by Andy Katz, that Florida and Georgetown are the latest college hoops duo to schedule an early 2012 nonconference game on the deck of a U.S. Navy ship, the third Carrier Classic-esque event to be scheduled on the same day in the upcoming hoops season. To be honest, I'm not sure how to feel. First, let's get the details from Andy's report:
Florida will play Georgetown on a ship off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., on Nov. 9, confirmed Friday through multiple SEC and Big East sources. The U.S. Navy has told the two schools that it is fully supportive of this game, much like it was of the Carrier Classic last year, according to multiple sources. The date is a Friday, the closest non-college football or NFL date to Veterans Day.

The Florida-Georgetown matchup is the third game scheduled to be played on a naval ship on Nov. 9, college basketball's opening day. All three games involve a Big East team. Marquette will play Ohio State on a ship off the coast of Charleston, S.C. while Syracuse will take on San Diego State on the flight deck of a retired ship, the USS Midway, off the coast of San Diego. It is not clear if the Florida-Georgetown or Marquette-Ohio State contests will be played on active ships.

The end result is not one or two but three mini-Carrier Classics, in three different locations across the country, all on the same day.

[+] EnlargeMichigan State vs North Carolina
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillWill the proliferation of season-opening games like last season's Carrier Classic make them less special?
At first glance, this is a good thing. The Carrier Classic was awesome. Now we get three games featuring six big-time college hoops programs, and we get them on college basketball's opening day. What could possibly be wrong with that?

But if a backlash comes, you can understand the reasons why. The Carrier Classic was less a season-opening college basketball game than a grand patriotic gesture. It was designed to honor America's heroes on Veterans Day. The president and first lady reserved a front-row seat. With vistas like this, no one was much concerned with the score.

The Carrier Classic was a brilliantly designed and expertly executed event. It's no wonder other teams want to get in on the action. But anyone squeamish about the idea of commercializing patriotism might be loath to see such an event recreated three times over. Are three naval ship games on the same day too much of a good thing? Does it cheapen the very reason for such a game in the first place -- cynically leveraging the ratings guarantee that is "display of American war might + basketball" -- in the hopes of drumming up college hoops interest in early November?

It might. It might also just be a win-win for everybody: The U.S. Navy is on board, according to Andy's report, and if college basketball teams can honor the troops and create must-see early-season television, is that really such a bad thing? As fans, we've spent years complaining about college basketball's stuttering season openers, and all offseason whining about coaches doing what's best for their "nontraditional" programs in favor of what's best for the sport. Now, when presented with the possibility of three huge season-opening events, are we in any position to complain?

Not that our reaction matters. The games are locked in, so on Nov. 9, we will be treated to a proper buffet of basketball games aboard warships. None of the three will have the cachet earned by 2011's marquee Carrier Classic, but all three will be must-see events in their own right, and all three will owe a major debt to the original.

Given last year's success, perhaps this trend was inevitable -- every bit as inevitable as the backlash. Your mileage may vary.
John Henson, Adreian Payne, Brandon DawsonAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillPlayers from both teams gave their jerseys to servicemembers after Friday's game.
Thoughts, notes and anything else that didn’t quite make this space after North Carolina’s latest game (in this case, a 67-55 victory over Michigan State in the Carrier Classic on Friday night).

SAN DIEGO -- UNC coach Roy Williams, suffering a bout of vertigo, felt so sick Friday, “I was just trying to make sure I could remember what was up and what was down for a while,’’ he said.

But at least one of his players didn’t know he was ill until after the game.

Shooting guard Dexter Strickland said he saw his coach go down to one knee when he approached him during the game to ask him which play he wanted to run. “I asked him if he was OK, he said he was fine, and he gave me the play,’’ Strickland said. “But later, he told us he was feeling dizzy, and was ready to get off the ship.”

Williams said he’s had the vertigo problem for 14 or 15 years, “and there are some things you can do to help it. I talked to the doctor on this trip and made sure I did the right things and it worked out. But I enjoyed every possible moment of it. Hopefully I'll coach another 10-15 years, but it'll be hard to top this unless it's a Final Four."

A FAMILIAR GREETING: Sophomore Harrison Barnes was both surprised, and impressed, that President Barack Obama was already familiar with the Tar Heels when he met with them before the game.

“He said, 'Hey, Z [Tyler Zeller], good seeing you again. Hey John [Henson], are you going to block some shots? Harrison, are you going to make some 3s?' Barnes said. “It was kind of cool to see that he kind of knew us, he was in touch."

Obama has some history with the Tar Heels. In April 2008, then-Sen. Obama played pick-up with the team in Chapel Hill while on a campaign stop. He chose the Tar Heels to win the national title in an NCAA bracket the next season – then welcomed them to the White House when he was proven right.

“It’s kind of a humbling experience when the president knows who you are,’’ said Zeller, who was a freshman on that '09 national title team. “I don’t know if he knew me from when I met him the first time, or it’s one of those things where he’s seen me play on TV. It was very cool.”

CLOTHES SWAP: Credit Michigan State’s Draymond Green, according to Strickland, for approaching the Tar Heels after the game and suggesting both teams take off their camouflage jerseys and give them to the Wounded Warriors sitting courtside.

UNC’s bench attire was a nice tribute, too.

As a show of appreciation to the military, the coaches wore matching khaki combat boots, with cargo pants tucked in.

QUOTABLE: “Turn around and look – how many times have you never seen a full moon while watching a game at the Smith Center?” UNC associate athletics director for communications Steve Kirschner said, during a second half break in the action

Follow Robbi Pickeral on twitter at @bylinerp
SAN DIEGO -- A year ago, when North Carolina wing Harrison Barnes scored his first two points in his first college game, he was nervous. He couldn’t breathe. He had cotton mouth, he said.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillHarrison Barnes' confidence was crucial early, and late, in North Carolina's season-opening victory.
That’s why the first points of his sophomore season Friday night, a jumper just 72 seconds into his top-ranked team’s 67-55 victory over Michigan State in the Carrier Classic, showed just how far he had come.

Because even with all the pomp and circumstance and distractions around him -- playing on the landing deck of an aircraft carrier; in slick, cold, breezy conditions; in front of President Barack Obama and thousands of servicemen and women on Veteran’s day -- he simply exhaled.

And then immediately buried another jumper.

“It’s been such a journey for me,’’ the preseason All-American said after leading all scorers with 17 points, plus five rebounds. “Starting off my freshman year, there were a lot of expectations, a lot of hype, and not playing to that caliber. Now coming in, and playing probably our biggest game of the year, on this stage and in this setting, coming out to perform, it’s a great feeling.”

It wasn’t how much Barnes scored (5-for-11, 2-for-5 on 3-pointers), as much as how he scored, that stood out.

His first two field goals got the Tar Heels off to an early 6-0 lead. Then, after they fell behind by as many as seven points in the first half (thanks to terrible rebounding), caught up and took as much as a 20-point lead in the second half (thanks to good transition offense and solid defense), and allowed the Spartans to make it somewhat interesting late -- Barnes came up big, again.

After MSU reeled off 10 consecutive points, cutting UNC’s advantage to 59-49, Barnes took an assist from Dexter Strickland and buried a 3-pointer to give his team a much-needed cushion.

No, it wasn’t as dramatic as one of those six game-winning or go-ahead shots he hit in the latter part of last season, when his confidence finally took hold.

But it was a shot the Tar Heels needed to make sure he wouldn’t have to make a down-to-the-wire buzzer beater Friday, like last season.

“He made two big 3s,” coach Roy Williams said. “One of ‘em -- I never felt like we had lost control of the game, I was mad about the way were were playing. But then we took a couple of bad shots, and all of a sudden John [Henson] set a good screen and Harrison had a wide-open 3 and Harrison stepped up and knocked it in.”

As pleased as he was with his performance and aplomb -- light years from this time a year ago -- Barnes said it was the events of the past three days (touring the carrier, meeting the president, learning about how so many sailors live) that will make this game memorable.

What did he take from it?

“One, not getting seasick, when I’m on a boat,’’ he said, laughing. “Two, just what the Navy does for us, what the military does for us, just goes so unappreciated. … I’m glad we won, but just showing our appreciation for them [was important]. These guys go out tomorrow, they deploy tomorrow, and I want to express my gratitude for them, and what they do.”

In turn, many in the open-air crowd expressed their gratitude for his growth -- cheering as he hit shots that might have left him cotton-mouthed only 12 months ago.

“His confidence has grown so much through the experience he had last year,’’ Strickland said. “And as you saw tonight, I think that’s going to help our team.”

Robbi Pickeral can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.

Michigan State wins boards, but not game

November, 12, 2011

SAN DIEGO -- After an event aboard the USS Carl Vinson that will be a lifetime memory, the Michigan State basketball team found that its identity mirrored in some small way the servicemen and women it entertained Friday night.

The Spartans will have to be tough and rugged and able to adjust on the fly if they are going to be a success this season.

"We played hard, we made the hustle plays," said an emotionally drained Tom Izzo. "We can be better offensively."

The Spartans lost to top-ranked North Carolina 67-55, despite outrebounding the Tar Heels by 15. MSU dealt with multiple players in foul trouble and a woeful 30.6 shooting percentage as a slight breeze blew across the deck. The weather couldn't mask a 2-for-20 effort from behind the 3-point arc, though.

Austin Thornton was a brutal 0-for-7 from the field, while freshman Travis Trice began his career 1-for-8. But Michigan State's Keith Appling said the wind wasn't an excuse he or teammates were willing to give.

[+] EnlargeBranden Dawson
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireBranden Dawson suffered a scare in the first half, but was able to return for the Spartans.
The Spartans got off to decent start in the first few minutes when they were controlling the offensive backboard. But that was before the Tar Heels started to click and run past MSU.

The Spartans weren't helped by a first-half injury to freshman forward Branden Dawson, who tweaked his right knee on a center-court logo. Izzo said at halftime and again after the game that the decals are a detriment to players and a serious concern for coaches and players. Dawson said he was a bit nervous after he went down.

He worked on his knee behind the basket, doing slide drills to loosen it up. It worked, as he ended up playing all but five minutes. But he wasn't as effective in the second half, scoring only 4 points and grabbing two of his seven rebounds after the break.

Dawson had ice on his knee after the game, but didn't appear to be having any issues. He will have to be a major factor for the Spartans, helping Draymond Green as well as Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix inside. The Spartans are already down one forward with Delvon Roe having to give up the sport due to injury.

"Coach Izzo told me I have to keep going to the glass," Dawson said. "We know that's what we have to do."

Green was down on himself for his play (6-of-19 from the field), but he did finish with 18 boards.

"We outrebounded them by 15 so you can see that we can be the old Michigan State," Green said. "We have to shoot the ball better, but we can win a lot of games rebounding like that."

The Spartans play Duke on Tuesday night at the Champions Classic in New York City. The Blue Devils have their tallest team in years, giving MSU another challenge inside.

But the Spartans love every minute of this. Izzo said he wouldn't have it any other way, playing the No. 1 Heels in Friday's spectacular and moving environment and then going across the country to play Duke on what could be coach Mike Krzyzewski's clinching victory to own the all-time win record.

"I do this because I'm selfish," Izzo said. "I want to be at these games. We're still building our program. We got something out of this. We competed. There was a different look in our players' eyes. There were no issues, none with the weather. It was just great."

Video: John Henson on Carrier win

November, 11, 2011

Dana O'Neil with North Carolina's John Henson, who was 6-of-10 from the field in North Carolina's 67-55 win over Michigan State in Friday's Carrier Classic aboard the USS Carl Vinson.

Rapid Reaction: UNC 67, Michigan St. 55

November, 11, 2011

SAN DIEGO -- A quick look at North Carolina’s 67-55 victory Friday over Michigan State in the Carrier Classic aboard the USS Carl Vinson:

What it means: It means nothing in the big scheme of things -- one game in November won’t make or break either of these teams. But certainly North Carolina didn’t want to come out in its first game and lay an egg, not with all the preseason excitement around this team. And the Tar Heels didn’t. They acquitted themselves well. Meanwhile, Michigan State also is what we expected. The Spartans have some good interior play with Draymond Green, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, but they need help outside and didn't get it Friday night (finished 2-of-20 from 3).

How it happened: No smoke and mirrors here. The Tar Heels simply have better players than the Spartans -- and lots of them. They were able to force Michigan State into mistakes and get out in transition to open up the game in their favor. Carolina was beaten on the boards, but it shot a respectable 46 percent given the conditions. Just 31 percent for MSU. Harrison Barnes led all scorers with 17 points, while teammate John Henson was 6-of-10 from the field. Kendall Marshall and Dexter Strickland dished out five assists apiece for UNC.

Halftime: Beat up on the boards early, North Carolina erased a seven-point first-half deficit by going to its bread and butter, its transition offense. The Tar Heels capitalized on missed Michigan State shots and forced turnovers to get out on the break, where the Spartans are simply no match. By the half, UNC led 36-25.

Hubbub: Since this wasn’t a typical game, time to point out some of the not-so-typical stuff. The pregame featured an all-sailor rock band, called The Destroyers, and in-game it was the tunes of the Navy Band. ... Some fans got to the flight deck by taking the lift used to bring the planes on board. ... Both teams sported camouflage-themed uniforms, and the UNC coaching staff wore khaki cargo pants tucked into military boots.

Quotable: "As some of you may know, because it was reported, the men and women of this ship were part of the critical mission to bring Osama bin Laden to justice" -- President Barack Obama addressing the crowd before the tip.

What’s next: North Carolina will charter to Asheville, N.C., arriving sometime around 5 a.m. and playing UNC Asheville at 4 p.m. Sunday. The Bulldogs are opening a new arena, and Asheville is Roy Williams’ hometown. ... Michigan State, meantime, jets cross-country for a Tuesday-night tip against No. 6 Duke in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. The Spartans will make a quick stop in East Lansing, heading to New York on Monday.

Video: Obama with Andy Katz

November, 11, 2011

President Obama addresses the game aboard the USS Carl Vinson and the scandal at Penn State.

UNC-MSU: Halftime thoughts

November, 11, 2011
SAN DIEGO – After falling behind early, top-ranked North Carolina leads Michigan State 36-25 at halftime of the Carrier Classic. Three quick thoughts:

  1. Everyone talked about the possible problems of wind conditions and depth perception when playing on an aircraft carrier. But the bigger issue thus far: a slick court. MSU’s Branden Dawson took a rough slide and had to be helped to the bench early on (he later returned), and towel guys have been rubbing at that spot during timeouts since. There have been other slips, thanks to chilly weather and condensation. Perhaps they should have considered playing on asphalt?
  2. Senior forward Tyler Zeller hasn’t shot particularly well (1-for-5), but he’s helped make up for it by taking three charges. He -- and the rest of the Tar Heels -- need to hit the boards harder, though. They're being outrebounded 27-17.
  3. UNC coach Roy Williams hasn’t shown any huge signs of the vertigo from which he started suffering yesterday. He might be moving a bit more slowly, but it hasn’t stopped him from popping up, yelling and instructing, when necessary.

Video: Obama from Carrier Classic

November, 11, 2011

President Obama addresses the military and teams aboard the USS Carl Vinson for the Carrier Classic.

UNC's Williams suffering vertigo

November, 11, 2011
SAN DIEGO -- UNC coach Roy Williams might not be as animated as usual during tonight's Carrier Classic.

The coach told's Andy Katz that he started suffering symptoms yesterday, and was concerned about it today. He will coach against Michigan State, however, on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson. Tip-off is roughly 7 p.m. EST.

Williams has suffered vertigo in the past, but it hasn't been a concern lately.

Izzo embraces Carrier Classic challenge

November, 11, 2011

SAN DIEGO -- Tom Izzo grew up in Iron Mountain, in the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Toughness is apparently part of the terrain. And no challenge for Izzo seems to be enough.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that Izzo and his trusted friend, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, were adamant about making the Carrier Classic occur.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillTom Izzo has never been one to shy away from a tough nonconference schedule.
Izzo got North Carolina coach Roy Williams on board when this was first discussed several years ago, and the two have been anxiously waiting for this day.

“We didn’t know the details, we didn’t know if we were playing in Iraq, here or Lake Michigan or in the Atlantic Ocean,’’ Izzo said. “There is no gimmick to this. We don’t need the extra exposure. We’re trying to give back.’’

Hollis said that Izzo was so moved from his time coaching in front of the troops in Kuwait a number of years ago that he wanted to make sure this event took place.

“I saw him tear up today,’’ Hollis said of Izzo’s emotions when he boarded the USS Carl Vinson on Thursday. “He was emotional. He lives for these kinds of things. The Final Four is special, but this will rank up there in his mind.’’

It already has -- and the tipoff hasn’t even occurred yet.

“My first impression far superseded what I thought it could be about seven or eight years ago when we tried to get this thing together,’’ Izzo said. “At first we were going to play two military schools. But if you could have seen our players’ eyes. There was such an appreciation for what we’re doing. It’s bigger than the game. It’s bigger than North Carolina or Michigan State. It’s a dream come true for us.’’

Hollis said challenges like this game are exactly what Izzo is about.

“He loves this,’’ Hollis said. “It’s in his nature. It’s in his background. It’s a unique quality. There are other coaches who had the opportunity to play here. But not everyone wanted to take the risks.’’

Michigan State will head home for two days before going to New York to play Duke in the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden. No one plays UNC and Duke in their first two games. It just doesn't happen.

But it’s what his players have come to expect.

“That’s coach,’’ Michigan State senior forward Draymond Green said. “He’s competitive. He was raised that way. It doesn’t say something about us. It says something about the players that came before us that built this program. It’s a credit to Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves and Steve Smith and guys like that. Without them, we don’t play North Carolina or Duke. No one would want us playing in the Champions Classic or on an aircraft carrier.’’

Green said that few teams would ever start off playing the No. 1 team in the country and then one of the top programs in Duke.

“We’re going against the best,’’ Green said. “By the time we get to the heart of the Big Ten schedule, our freshmen will have seen everything. They will have played against the best. It will help us down the road.’’

Keith Appling said he came to Michigan State because he knew Izzo would put him in games like this.

[+] EnlargeAdreian Payne
AP Photo/U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class James R. EvansMichigan State basketball has experienced a lot of history. But nothing quite like the Carrier Classic.
“I always knew we’d have one of the best schedules every year,’’ he said.

Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood would never have had the chance to participate in games like this had he not found a way to get to East Lansing for one season. Wood was simply in awe.

“I just feel blessed to be a part of this team,’’ he said. “This is a dream for me. I’m just trying to soak it all in and go through as much of it as I can. I appreciate being in a game like this.’’

We have gotten used to Izzo scheduling an NCAA field before the Big Ten even begins. It is his nature. It’s what he does.

He is comfortable enough with his job, his staff, his players and his administration to put his team in tremendous situations. Izzo jumped at playing in Ford Field against Kentucky as a precursor to playing North Carolina in the same venue in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge before the Final Four.

But nothing will hold as much weight for him as this game, for the troops, in front of the sailors, and on the USS Carl Vinson. Izzo was anxious on the court Thursday night. He couldn’t wait for Friday. Hollis had the initial idea. Izzo didn’t hesitate when approached. And now it’s finally here.

“We’re doing something nobody else has done,’’ Izzo said. “There are a lot of great players and programs, but none will have a memory maker like this. No one has ever done something like this.’’

There is, by the way, a game on the Vinson

November, 11, 2011

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.’’

[+] EnlargeUNC Practice
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireThe UNC and MSU players are prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime experience on Friday.
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.

Rain won't force Carrier Classic below deck

November, 11, 2011
Editor's Note: For Dana O'Neil's game preview, click here. Also, check out a historic photo gallery of basketball being played on aircraft carriers for decades, including a WWII-era shot of a future President.

SAN DIEGO -- A number of sailors, some on and some off duty, milled around the court atop the USS Carl Vinson on Thursday, giddy about getting to watch North Carolina-Michigan State in an unprecedented event Friday.

The sailors, like everyone else involved in this game -- from the president to the Secretary of the Navy to the captain of the ship to every member of the military on board -- will still actually get the chance, regardless of the weather. The threat of rain is diminishing for Friday night, which is a huge relief to those who fretted over what was a more foreboding forecast a couple days ago.

The conditions were so perfect Thursday evening that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said during the team’s shootaround, “We’re playing here. It will be this nice. It’s beautiful.’’

The decision to play the game on the deck, as originally planned, was actually made Wednesday morning, according to the game’s initial innovator, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis. Hollis said a half-set was put together in the hangar below deck. And it was a disaster.

[+] EnlargeUSS Carl Vinson
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireCrews stopped construction on the court in the indoor hangar bay after the area was ruled out. The plan is to go forward above deck.
If the game had been moved below deck, it would have had a totally different feel. Seating was only good for 2,500, rather than 7,000. Hollis said the Navy would have had to set up viewing stations around the ship with televisions. It simply wouldn't have been the same.

“It was like a small junior high gymnasium down there,’’ Hollis said. “No one wanted it to happen.’’

Not the coaches. Not the players. Not the military personnel. No one.

“I had a few of the troops say that if this game isn’t outside, they won’t see it,’’ North Carolina sophomore Harrison Barnes said.

Hollis said there is a rain contingency plan -- simply a rain delay. A number of servicemen from a nearby base volunteered throughout the week, setting up the court and the stands. They put a tarp, just like on a baseball diamond, over the court each of the past three days. A tarp was on the court Thursday night.

“We’ll stop it if there is any kind of moisture,’’ Hollis said. “The biggest concern is the safety of the student-athletes.’’

Those student-athletes certainly don't seem concerned, though.

“This is so special to be the first outdoor college basketball game and anyone who doesn’t play for Michigan State or North Carolina can’t say they played in it,’’ Michigan State senior forward Draymond Green said. “If we went underneath, we couldn’t have said it either.

"You worry about the rain, but I grew up playing outside on the playground, and if there’s wind just shoot it off the backboard.’’

Hollis said a number of waivers had to be granted by the NCAA.

“There were a lot of operational logistics we were dealing with since we had the government, the Navy, the two institutions and the NCAA,’’ Hollis said. “The approval of the uniforms, the long sleeves, the ability to come out a day earlier than normal. There were a lot of things that [Big East coordinator of officials] Art Hyland and [NCAA coordinator of officials] John Adams had to help us get through for all the waivers. We also had to get the endorsement of [NCAA president] Mark Emmert and [NCAA vice president] Greg Shaheen.’’

The setup on the Vinson's flight deck, where normally 39 jets are stationed, ready to be deployed, is as picture-perfect as any venue in the history of the sport. The court sits on the middle of the deck, with the San Diego skyline across the water. The stands, which seat 7,000, are next to the court, with courtside seating for dignitaries that will include President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill It was quite an experience when the players took the court for the first time Thursday.
At one point Thursday, sailors took turns sitting in their seats in their blue-tinted fatigues. The image was akin to an Army-Navy game.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he was filled with pride in advance of the game. His first reaction to coming on board the ship Wednesday was: “Wow. Wow. Every player had their phones and cameras out," Williams said. "No one was talking to each other. Their eyes and mouths were wide open. This is going to be a celebration.

"From the tipoff to the final horn, we’ll be working our tails off for the game. But we’ll be thinking about the smiles on the faces of the people who serve our country. We’re thrilled. It sends a cold chill for me just talking about it. It’s the neatest thing I’ve ever been involved in.’’

North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller said the last time he played outside was in middle school. He said he was a bit worried about his hook shot and sizing up the distance with the potential for wind.

The elements were on everyone’s mind, but not in a negative way.

“I like it out here,’’ North Carolina junior forward John Henson said. “I think we should get the Dean Dome to open up. I’d hate to go down low and miss this experience.’’

Barnes called the whole thing “unreal.”

“There’s no other way to say describe it," he said. "It’s so nice with the sky and the cool weather. There will be such a special aura about this game. No matter how far we go in the tournament, we’ll never see something like this. We’re showing appreciation for the troops, see how they live and this game is put in perspective.’’

Michigan State sophomore guard Keith Appling called this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“I’m only concerned that a couple of my shots get some wind and they could far right or far left,’’ he said with a laugh. “It might be embarrassing with the president in the stands.’’

Nevertheless, this game will be outside, whether there is wind or mist. That much we know.

“Weather is not going to be a factor,’’ Green said. “It’s going to be great.’’

Video: Izzo, Williams talk Carrier Classic

November, 10, 2011

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and North Carolina counterpart Roy Williams get ready for their historic basketball game aboard a United States Navy aircraft carrier.