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November 11, 2011
A Veteran's Day Classic
North Carolina and Michigan State are playing a basketball game Friday night, the respective season openers in fact for the two storied programs who met for the 2009 NCAA championship in Detroit 19 months ago.
But this year's Veteran's Day Navy Carrier Classic is so much more.
Friday night's Classic, played on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson in San Diego, is a spectacle honoring the men and women who help keep America free and protect our way of life around the world.
While the overwhelming majority of fans will have to watch this one on ESPN (tipoff is just after 7:00 pm Eastern), approximately 7,000 servicemen stationed around San Diego and the rest of California will compromise most of the onsite crowd.
"This is a celebration," said UNC head coach Roy Williams Thursday afternoon aboard the Carrier. "The basketball game, from the tipoff till the final horn, we're going to be working our tails off about the game. But every single second prior to it and as soon as the game's final horn is over with, we're thinking about hopefully putting a smile on some people's faces who represent our country and serve our country."
"I'm as thrilled as I could possibly be," Williams added. "I've got cold chills up here talking about it. It's the neatest thing that I've ever been involved with."
"I think the biggest thing that I've been thinking about the most is the crowd that's going to be in attendance---how it's mostly soldiers," said sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall.
"What they do is so much more important than what we do. We're out here playing for fun. This is almost like a hobby for us, whereas every day they're putting their life on the line. I definitely have much more respect for what they go out there and do day-to-day as opposed to us playing basketball for fun."
"We're representing our University and we want to play well, but at the same time, there are bigger things at hand," Marshall continued.
"If you could have seen our players' eyes as we walked in (on the Aircraft Carrier), you just had such an appreciation for what we're doing. It's bigger than a game. It's bigger than North Carolina against Michigan State. It's kind of a dream come true for us," added Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo.
"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."
While North Carolina is the preseason No. 1 team and one of the favorites to reach the Final Four next spring, Michigan State is a program that some might say is in a rebuilding mode heading into this season.
The Spartans lost senior Kalin Lucas, who led them in scoring a year ago, as well as key contributors Durrell Summers and Delvon Roe.
Summers made what now appears to be an unwise decision to leave early for the pros---just last week he was drafted by the NBDL's Maine Red Claws---while Delvon Roe was forced to stop playing the sport prior to what would have been his senior season at MSU due to chronic knee pain.
The Spartans bring back just two players who were primary contributors a year ago---senior forward Draymond Green and sophomore guard Keith Appling---which means they could find themselves out-gunned by UNC's veteran-laden rotation that returns all five starters from last year's ACC regular season championship and Elite Eight squad.
The 6-7 Green is one of the better returning players in the Big Ten, having led the Spartans in rebounding last year with 8.6 per game. Interestingly enough, Green also led MSU in assists last year, throwing quality passes to the tune of just over four assists per game despite being a post player.
Appling was mostly a backup last season---averaging over six points per game---but now he steps into the starting point guard role for the Spartans, who were picked to finish third in the preseason Big Ten media poll.
MSU may have to rely heavily Friday night on freshman Branden Dawson, a tough 6-6 combo guard/forward who was the No. 20 overall prospect nationally in the Rivals 150 in the Class of 2011, as well as senior Brandon Wood, a transfer from Valparaiso who has a history with North Carolina.
Some Tar Heel fans may remember Wood going off on the Tar Heels in a game against Valparaiso back in November 2009, when he scored 30 points while nailing six three-pointers.
After transferring to MSU and sitting out last season, Wood figures to be in the starting lineup for the Spartans Friday night against UNC.
While on paper this looks like a favorable matchup for a North Carolina team with all the tools to make a run at a national championship, there will be elements in place that have never before been in place for such a game.
Wind could actually be a factor in this ballgame, and after the daytime turns into night, could the temperature actually play a factor?
Naturally these are all things that have never before been a factor for a college basketball game.
While the fans sometimes have to trudge through the snow in Chapel Hill to get to the Smith Center---and they often have to do it to get to games at the Breslin Center in East Lansing---the games themselves are never affected.
While it won't be snowing in San Diego Friday night, could a sudden gust of wind or even a drop or two of rain impact the game between these two collegiate heavyweights?
"When Tommy and I played, we used to play outside," Williams said. "But kids don't play outside anymore."
"We better get a lot of shooting in (before the game) because we haven't been outside. He (Izzo) may have outsmarted me, but we haven't been outside."
"I don't want to shoot and the ball go sailing one way or the other (in the wind). There's definitely going to be an adjustment," said Marshall.
Coach Izzo brought levity to the situation.
"My guys haven't shot real well in the exhibitions. I told them to shoot the exact same way and the wind will blow it in," he joked.
For the players, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to play in this game, but it's also something that is going to be very, very different.
"I think it's a very interesting thing anyway because it's going to be played kind of outside and we've always played inside, so I'm very excited about it but at the same time, it's got that little bit of mystery about it that will be very interesting to figure out. I think everybody will do a great job," said UNC senior big man Tyler Zeller.
"It is something that none of us have ever experienced. I'm looking forward to it but I'm also a little nervous about it. It'll be fun to be able to give back to them (the military) and be able to play a game in front of them," Zeller added.
"Of course, part of the excitement of everything is being able to play on a Carrier outside, and people having questions about how it's going to work. We're just going into it focused on our opponent, and dealing with everything else when we get out there," said Marshall.
And the fact that the UNC players are getting to play in front of America's finest---the men and women in uniform---only makes Friday night's experience all the more meaningful.
It truly is a Veteran's Day Classic.
"It's going to be a great experience. It should be a fun experience (playing) outside. I don't even know how to explain it. But it should be a great experience for us. I hope we win," said junior 'two' guard Dexter Strickland.