North Carolina Tar Heels: Michigan State Spartans

If you’ve noticed a sudden rush of recruiting information for 2016 prospects in the last few days, it's no coincidence.

Sunday was the first day that college coaches were permitted to contact prospects in the rising junior class, and for some prospects that literally meant the phone rang when the clock struck midnight.

Often times, those conversations are followed by some sort of offer. Here’s a look at some of the latest news for the Class of 2016:

Quincy AcyNelson Chenault/US PresswireQuincy Acy's superior offensive skills help make him Baylor's most indispensable player.
When North Carolina guard Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist in Sunday's win against Creighton, it was momentarily easy to forget Marshall isn't the most talented or productive player on his team. There's Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes and John Henson, and that's just for starters. So why is losing Marshall such a big deal?

Because he is, without question, UNC's most important player. The most efficient? No. The most gifted? Probably not. But there's little question Marshall -- with his visionary, table-setting passing (second nationally in assists), intelligent tempo management and offensive initiation, and the lack of a viable backup -- was/is the most crucial personnel component to Carolina's style, identity and ultimately success.

Which got us thinking: Who is everyone else's Marshall? Who's the most indispensable player on each of the Sweet 16 rosters, the one each team could least afford to lose? Well, we're glad you (OK, we) asked. Here's what we came up with:

South Region

No. 1 Kentucky: Anthony Davis, forward -- No overthinking this one. Sure, there's an argument to be made for Marquis Teague, who appeared for much of the season to be Kentucky's lone potential weakness; Teague's two months of consistently increased success -- culminating in a brilliant performance in a rout of Iowa State -- have cast doubts about whether he could be easily replaced. But one can envision a scenario in which guard Doron Lamb, whose ballhandling is probably slightly underrated at this point, would be able to get UK into its offense. Coach John Calipari would find a way to make it work. Without Davis, the Cats lose a downright transcendent shot-blocking force and the source of countless easy baskets on the other end of the floor, the type of player who opposing coaches frequently say "changes the game." It's Davis, and it's hard to find the counterintuitive argument here.

No. 3 Baylor: Quincy Acy, forward -- While not the most talented big man in Baylor's lineup, Acy's absence would irreparably harm the Bears for two obvious reasons: He scores easy buckets in the low block, and he rebounds. Perry Jones III does some of these same things, too, but hardly to the level Acy does (and not nearly as consistently), and the Bears -- a very good offensive rebounding team that struggles on the defensive glass -- would not be nearly as good on offense were Acy not around to clean up so many misses.

No. 4 Indiana: Cody Zeller, forward -- Again, no use in overthinking this. Zeller is by far IU's leader in offensive efficiency and rebounding, and he has changed the way the Hoosiers -- who were immensely foul-prone the past three years under Tom Crean -- guard the rim and chase down misses. Plus, without him, Indiana's big man rotation would consist of Tom Pritchard and Derek Elston. We've seen that movie before. It was not critically acclaimed.

No. 10 Xavier: Kenny Frease, center -- Sticking with the all-big-men theme here, Frease is the most indispensable player because Xavier really doesn't have another guy who can do what he does, primarily on the glass. If star guard Tu Holloway went missing, the Musketeers would certainly lack for offensive creativity, but they'd have another talented (if mercurial) guard in Mark Lyons, who would no doubt be more than willing to hoist a few extra shots. Without Frease, Chris Mack's team would be in no-man's-land on the low block.

West Region

No. 1 Michigan State: Draymond Green, forward -- When you do this much for your team, your membership on this list requires no explanation. Really, it's not even close.

No. 3 Marquette: Darius Johnson-Odom, guard -- Jae Crowder's breakout senior season has been a huge factor in this team's success, no doubt about it. But DJO's relentless, attacking, bruising style -- not to mention his all-court game, his lockdown perimeter defense and his ability to go end-to-end on the fast break both with rim finishes and pull-up jumpers -- gives this Marquette team its hard-won identity.

No. 4 Louisville: Gorgui Dieng, forward -- I promise, this list isn't all forwards. The obvious answer here is Peyton Siva, but the Cardinals already have a pretty willing on-ball defender and shot-happy penetrator in guard Russ Smith, while Dieng -- a crazy-lanky shot-blocker, rebounder and defensive anchor -- has keyed so much of the Cards' No. 2-ranked per-possession defense this season.

No. 7 Florida: Kenny Boynton, guard -- The original temptation was to go with another big man, in this case Patric Young, but let's be real: The Gators don't use their frontcourt on offense anyway. Which is why Boynton's ability not only to take a lot of long-range jumpers but actually make them at a high rate is so important. That isn't always the case with the rest of this backcourt. Plus, Boynton -- with the possible exception of Bradley Beal -- happens to be Florida's most creative scorer off the dribble, one of the Gators' few players who can do more than chuck long-range shots to fuel this high-powered offense.

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Brown
Tony Dejak/AP PhotoLorenzo Brown and NC State will be facing high expectations this upcoming season.
Midwest Region

No. 1 North Carolina: Kendall Marshall, guard -- By now, you get the idea.

No. 2 Kansas: Tyshawn Taylor, guard -- The obvious choice is Thomas Robinson and, you know, duh: Dude's a national player of the year candidate for a reason. But at this stage of the season, Kansas' ability to win a national title rests in large part on Taylor's play at the point guard spot. If he is on -- attacking the rim and finding teammates without coughing up turnovers -- he's truly the biggest X factor on Bill Self's team. If he's off, the Jayhawks turn to Elijah Johnson, Travis Releford and ... Conner Teahan? The defense rests.

No. 11 North Carolina State: Lorenzo Brown, guard -- C.J. Leslie has blossomed into this team's most impressive player, but its point guard deserves as much if not more credit for the unlikely late-season Sweet 16 run this Wolfpack team has somehow managed to piece together. On a team with no tournament experience and plenty of young players, Brown's calming influence on the ball is a major asset.

No. 13 Ohio: D.J. Cooper, guard -- Cooper demonstrated his worth with huge shots down the stretch against a South Florida team that prides itself on disallowing exactly the kind of offensive display Cooper generated. For a team with the No. 2-ranked opponents' turnover percentage in the country, Cooper's 4.3 percent steals rate (the 22nd-ranked individual mark in the country) truly makes it go.

East Region

No. 1 Syracuse: C.J. Fair, forward -- It's hard to pick from Syracuse's still-stacked-minus-Fab lineup, but Fair gets the nod. With all due respect to Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph and Brandon Triche, the Orange wouldn't exactly hurt for scoring guards were one of them to suffer an injury. If Fair went down, Jim Boeheim would lose his last truly effective big man, and the only viable interior option this side of Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita.

No. 2 Ohio State: William Buford, guard -- This is a bit of a tricky one, because there's simply no replacing Jared Sullinger's interior prowess or Aaron Craft's incredible perimeter defense. But if OSU is truly a national title threat -- and it looks the part thus far -- that's because Buford, who struggled with his shot in nearly every Ohio State loss this season, isn't cashing in from the perimeter. Having Buford as a go-to option on the outside only aids Sullinger's load and takes as much pressure off Craft and the rest of the Buckeyes as possible. The senior has to score efficiently for this team to make a run. Simple as that.

No. 4 Wisconsin: Jordan Taylor, guard -- Again: No overthinking required, no explanation needed. May a resounding duh ring forth across the land.

No. 6 Cincinnati: Yancy Gates, forward -- With all due respect to Sean Kilpatrick, who has quietly become one of the stars of the tournament, the Bearcats would be a team full of guards with no interior punch (sorry) were it not for the indomitable Gates. Losing Kilpatrick would be a major blow, but lineup and skill-set facsimiles abound. Not so with Gates. He's crucial.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo knows the anguish North Carolina’s Roy Williams is feeling.

Izzo understands the uncertainty of losing a point guard after the second game of the NCAA tournament.

He can comprehend more than most the need to adjust on the fly and hope the moves you make work well enough to still get to the Final Four and compete for a national title.

The No. 5 seed Spartans were a legit candidate for the Indianapolis Final Four in 2010. But then Kalin Lucas, Izzo’s starting point guard and unquestioned leader, suffered a torn Achilles in a second-round victory over Maryland.

“It’s a killer,” Izzo told ESPN.com Sunday night upon learning of North Carolina guard Kendall Marshall's fractured right wrist, suffered in a fall during the Tar Heels’ win over Creighton earlier Sunday in Greensboro, N.C.

“It’s tough,’’ said Izzo. “When it’s a point guard, it’s a different animal. They’re already missing [Dexter] Strickland.’’

[+] EnlargeKendall Marshall
AP Photo/Zach GibsonMichigan State reached the 2010 Final Four without its starting point guard; can UNC do the same without Kendall Marshall?
Lucas’ backup at the position, Korie Lucious, stepped in for him and buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Maryland and send the Spartans to the 2010 Sweet 16.

Michigan State caught a break in that the next game as the Spartans played 9-seed Northern Iowa instead of top seed Kansas. The Panthers had upset the Jayhawks in the second round.

“It helped us a bit,’’ Izzo said. “Lucious got his feet wet [in the Maryland game]. We were fortunate.’’

This season, Ohio is more than formidable after the No. 13 Bobcats knocked off No. 4 Michigan in the second round and then No. 12 South Florida on Sunday to get to the Sweet 16 matchup against North Carolina on Friday in St. Louis.

In 2010, the Spartans beat the Panthers by seven but had to survive a one-point game to beat Tennessee in the Elite Eight. Michigan State then lost by two to Butler in the national semifinal.

If Lucas doesn’t get hurt do the Spartans beat Butler and topple Duke for the national title?

“I remember saying in the locker room [after the Maryland game] that we’ve got to find a way to get it done,’’ Izzo said. “We knew Kalin was done. What you’ve got to do is get your team to believe that you still have a chance. We made it to the Final Four. I didn’t think it was a reach that we could win [the title]. It was one of those Final Four years where anything could have happened.’’

Lucas was done the moment he tore his Achilles. It is still unknown if Marshall could return at any point during this tournament.

Izzo said that knowing he had Lucious as a backup to Lucas at least lessened some of the blow. The Tar Heels are already without Strickland, who suffered a torn ACL in January. Shooting shouldn’t be a problem with Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston. But leading the Carolina break and setting up big men like Tyler Zeller, John Henson and Harrison Barnes may fall to seldom-used playmakers Stilman White and Justin Watts.

“I’ll guarantee that Carolina has better people than we did,’’ Izzo said. “They’ll have good enough people to rally. But the problem is that the backup point guard isn’t there.’’

The Spartans played the Tar Heels to start the season on the USS Carl Vinson off Coronado, Calif., on Nov. 11. North Carolina won 67-55.

Izzo can see the Tar Heels playing differently if they opt for a change.

“They can play another way,’’ Izzo said. “[Marshall] ran their break and that’s what they’ll miss the most, at least that’s what I see from afar. But there were times when they would throw it inside where they were more effective.’’

Not having Lucas in 2010 meant the Spartans didn’t run as much.

“We had to pound it in more,’’ Izzo said. “We didn’t run as much. We had to walk it up because we didn’t have the depth. We had to adjust.’’

Assuming Carolina can beat Ohio even without Marshall would be a mistake. Predicting who the Tar Heels would meet in the Elite Eight is foolish, too.

“I told my guys on Selection Sunday, ‘Don’t start looking at the bracket because down the road, it will change,’’’ Izzo said. “There is going to be something, an injury, an upset, something is going to happen.’’
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 -- who led UNC with 17 points -- 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

Video: Roy Williams after Carrier experience

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Dana O'Neil with Roy Williams after UNC's 67-55 victory over Michigan State aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
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 bylinerp@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.

Michigan State wins boards, but not game

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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."

Rapid Reaction: UNC 67, Michigan St. 55

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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

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

UNC-MSU: Halftime thoughts

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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

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

UNC's Williams suffering vertigo

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

The coach told ESPN.com'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.
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.

UNC-Michigan State: What to watch

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SAN DIEGO -- Thursday afternoon, North Carolina’s shootaround on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson paused suddenly when the public-address person announced the retiring of the colors. The Tar Heels’ players, standing solemnly at attention, laughed when they learned it was only a trial run.

“Everyone keeps taking it seriously because they have guns,’’ senior Tyler Zeller said, referring to the sailors all over the ship.

Still, expect a short game stoppage, for real, around sundown on Friday for the ceremony.

Other things to watch as the top-ranked Tar Heels open the season against Michigan State in the Carrier Classic:

1. SHOOTING PERCENTAGES

One of UNC’s goals is to shoot better from the outside this season. But it’s probably going to be hard to judge any improvement from this game. Numbers show that shooting percentages decrease in vast arenas with tall ceilings, such as domes. And playing on the deck of an aircraft carrier means the roof is sky-high.

“You do have very bright lights from some angles when you’re shooting, from other angles you have clear skies, which is different for your depth perception,’’ UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said. “But at the end of the day, both teams are having to deal with this, and it’s just a matter of being mentally tough enough to go out there and execute.”

2. APPAREL

Don’t get too distracted by the camo unis both UNC and Michigan State will be sporting – because Tar Heels coach Roy Williams has promised a surprise in his wardrobe, as well. Red-white-and-blue tie? Combat boots? Jumpman jumpsuit? Stay tuned.

3. HARRISON BARNES

A year ago, the now-sophomore began his college career with a forgettable performance, shooting 6-for-12 but missing all three of his 3-pointers in a season-opening victory over Lipscomb. Now stronger, a better ballhandler and aiming to go to the free-throw line more often, expect a more notable start for the pre-season All-America.

4. A FAMILIAR FOE

The last time Brandon Wood faced the Tar Heels, he connected on 12 of 19 shots (6 of 10 from 3-point range) and scored 30 points. He was playing for Valparaiso at that time, in November of 2009, and his team still lost. But now that the graduate-school transfer is slated to start for Michigan State, the Spartans are hoping he might be able to repeat that kind of damage.

5. AUDIENCE REACTION

If you’re able to catch sight of the fans in the stands, take a moment to notice. Most of them will be from the five branches of the military, including some wounded warriors. This event, both coaches have said, is meant to say thank you to them.

“It's bigger than a game,’’ Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It's bigger than North Carolina against Michigan State. It's kind of a dream come true for us. In a small, small way, I think we feel we're giving a little bit back, and maybe recognizing the people that deserve to be recognized, instead of just the athletes."

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
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.’’

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