NEW YORK (AP) – Tom Izzo joked that when he jumps off the roof after losing a game, at least this time the landing will be soft water.
The inaugural Carrier Classic presents a balancing act for the Michigan State coach and his North Carolina counterpart, Roy Williams. They want their players to appreciate the enormity of the Veterans Day game on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson.
“The uniqueness of this game is overwhelming,” Williams told The Associated Press on Thursday.
There’s also a high-profile season opener to try to win.
“Before you have a lot of thoughts. After you have a lot of thoughts,” Izzo said. “But I think during the game, I appreciate that our troops are fighting for us – our teams are going to be fighting.”
The Tar Heels and Spartans face off Nov. 11 – 11-11-11 – in San Diego harbor in the first college basketball game on an active flat top. It’s a coincidence that the aircraft carrier is the now-famous Carl Vinson, which was used to bury Osama bin Laden at sea after he was killed by Navy SEALs last spring.
The 7,000 fans will be mostly veterans and active military personnel and their families, with no tickets on sale to the general public. Magic Johnson for the Spartans and Michael Jordan for the Tar Heels will serve as their alma maters’ honorary captains.
From the tributes to American troops to the spectacle of a basketball court atop a flight deck, there will be much to awe the players in the lead-up to the game and even during it. Izzo says it’s not unlike a Final Four – and these two coaches have plenty of experience preparing their teams for that extravaganza. They’ve got 13 appearances between them and met each other there in 2009, when North Carolina routed Michigan State in the NCAA championship game.
“You do all that work to get to a Final Four and you want the guys to enjoy the fact they’re in a Final Four,” Izzo said. “Then you’re saying, `Wait a minute. Now we’ve got a game to play.”‘
At least a Final Four comes at the end of the season when freshmen aren’t so inexperienced anymore. Izzo will be relying on several players making their college debuts in the Classic after a disappointing 2010-11.
Williams has the advantage of continuity – and veteran talent – with Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson deciding not to turn pro after the Tar Heels reached the NCAA quarterfinals.
At a luncheon Thursday in Manhattan promoting the game, Izzo recalled that he was “licking my chops” about the upcoming matchup until one day in April when he was driving and listening to the radio. That’s when he heard the news that all three players were coming back.
“After recovering after driving off the road,” he quipped, “I called my AD and swore in the way only I can.”
Each team will have one practice on the flight deck before the game. Izzo wasn’t concerned about his players getting acclimated with such a different shooting background, noting that Final Four teams seem to surprisingly do just fine in football domes like Ford Field in 2009.
“Carolina two years ago shot about 60 percent against us,” he said. “They didn’t have any problem at all.”
Williams wasn’t so sure it would be a smooth transition this time.
“This will be the most drastic adjustment players will ever have to make,” he said. “When I was a kid, we used to play outdoors. Now kids don’t play outdoors. The elements will be a major factor in the game. The good thing is it will be the same factor for both teams.”
The game will be played below the flight deck if it rains. But even if the weather is dry, outdoors is outdoors.
“Could be windy. Could be sunny. Could be cloudy,” Williams said. “They’ll put up lights and they’ll put up wind screens and all those kind of things. But the elements could be the most drastic we’ve ever been involved in.”
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