CORONADO, Calif. – It’s tough for the Michigan State and North Carolina basketball programs to say “We’ve never done that before.”
That comes with the territory with a combined eight national championships, countless All-Americans and pedigrees that are second to none.
Friday night aboard the USS Carl Vinson, both got to say just that when the two opened the season aboard an active aircraft carrier – a college basketball first – in the inaugural Carrier Classic.
No. 1 North Carolina overcame a sluggish start to beat Michigan State 67-55, and despite the game counting in each team’s record, the final score was secondary to everything else that went on throughout the day.
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NCAA President Mark Emmert had the same reaction that most people had upon learning of Friday’s Carrier Classic.
“How are they going to pull that off?”
Well, after near-perfect execution and an incredible scene off Coronado Island on the USS Carl Vinson, this may become an annual event. Emmert would like to see it.
“I don’t know how you couldn’t want it,” Emmert said. “It’d be a lot of fun, and I hope we can figure out how to do it. I hope we can turn it into an annual event with some teams rotating through here.”
Playing in new venues is not new to college athletics. Hockey took its game outdoors in recent years, while college football has made its way into the likes of Yankee Stadium.
Maybe that idea of a new place to play in your head isn’t so crazy. After all, a basketball game on an aircraft carrier? Doesn’t get much wackier-sounding than that. Dream it up. It could happen.
“It provides new experiences for the student-athlete,” Emmert said. “They obviously love this. It’s also a fun new experience for the fans. It gives a different perspective on it. A lot of us grew up playing basketball in parking lots and backyards and parks, so getting to play outdoors again isn’t that crazy. Just like a lot of hockey gets played outdoors, too. It’s kind of fun in that sense.”
Playing in front of a crowd of 8,111, which included President Obama courtside, the players battled chilly temperatures and a moisture-laden court most of the evening. That was after some had to be reminded there was actually a game to be played, following hours of pre-game entertainment and pomp and circumstance from the many former and current military members in attendance.
While the threat of rain loomed all week, the only weather factors were a breeze and fall chill in the air. Something that some of the players joked about.
“It took a while, but at some point you didn’t even realize you were outside until the play slowed down,” North Carolina’s John Henson said. “It was fun. My excuse was sometimes I felt like the boat moved a little bit when I shot. That’s why I missed.”
And no, for the record the boat did not move. In fact, once the sun set into the Pacific Ocean, it was tough to even notice the game was being played on a ship.
The nuclear-powered vessel is used to launching fighter jets – which it famously did at the beginning of the war with Iraq. And more recently, was the site of Osama bin Laden’s burial at sea. Friday was another memory of which its 6,000 Navy personnel will remember for a long time. Especially as they prepare to set sail on another mission in the coming weeks.
The average age of those that call the USS Carl Vinson home? Twenty-years old. The average age of the Tar Heels and Spartans? Twenty-years old. The admiration for both was extraordinary.
“It’s really fantastic because one of the fun things to watch is the players’ reactions to the military,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said before the game. “They realize they are their age, they are cohorts. It’s been fun to see that recognition and to see everybody enjoying basketball and saluting veterans at the same time.”
UNC’s John Henson and Harrison Barnes made sure those in attendance wouldn’t go home having seen an upset. Henson finished with 12 points and a career-high nine blocks, while Barnes recorded a game-high 17 points.
In what was expected to be a sloppy game given the unfamiliar surroundings and the elements of the outdoors, the Spartans jumped out to a 17-12 lead, only to see the Tar Heels wake-up, despite being outrebounded 49-34 – including 24-8 on the offensive side.
Both teams combined for 29 turnovers, while Michigan State shot only 30-percent from the floor, including 2-for-20 from beyond the arc.
Draymond Green led an extremely young Michigan State squad with 13 points and a career-high 18 rebounds. Head coach Tom Izzo has a lot for his team to work on in the next couple practices before facing another ACC opponent in New York on Tuesday – Duke.
“The effort was there, the defense was pretty good,” Izzo said. “The rebounding was awesome, we need to run our offense better. I’m on a soap box here with all the things I got out of it, but I said we’d get something out of it – it wasn’t just a memory.”
But with all the build up and planning about the game, did it really live up to the hype?
Yes. Especially on the Michigan State side. It was an idea thought up almost eight years ago by MSU Athletic Director Mark Hollis, with the help of Izzo. It finally became a reality.
“Absolutely loved it,” Izzo said. “The military was so good on this whole deal, from when we got here to when we’re leaving. I thought it was awesome.”
“I absolutely loved it,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “We had some scary moments. We were worried about the weather for the last week, but it worked and I thought it was great.”
You also know it’s a unique evening when the president is on a nickname basis with you, and the head coach of the Tar Heels was wearing camouflage pants and boots. Just ask John Henson.
“We stayed pretty focused,” Henson said. “We met the president, which was pretty humbling. It was kind of crazy – he knew who most of us were. He was like ‘Hey Z, good seeing you again,’ and ‘Hey John, gonna block some shots tonight?’ It was kinda cool to see that he knew us and that he’s in touch.”
UNC freshman P.J. Hairston’s first collegiate experience came onboard, including his first bucket – a step back three-pointer in the second half. It’s something he won’t forget.
“I was sitting on the bench and just kept thinking ‘wow,’” Hairston said. “I always dreamed about this when I was little, I just wanted to be playing college basketball somewhere and here I am today playing onboard an aircraft carrier in my first real game.”
With the NBA lockout in full effect, many former players were in attendance. UNC greats Vince Carter and Tyler Hansbrough were just a couple, while James Worthy and Magic Johnson served as honorary captains.
Before too long, the makeshift stands and court will be gone from the flight deck, and the USS Carl Vinson will be back out to sea. At that point, the fighter jets will return and everything will be back to normal.
But for one special day, one of the nation’s finest tokens of its freedom was the epicenter of the sports world. That’s something that any of its sailors will remember for a long, long time. And that’s what means the most.