MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C.
It’s about much more than pick-and-rolls and double teams for the four teams starting their seasons aboard the USS Yorktown at the Carrier Classic.
Ohio State’s Thad Matta and Jim Foster, Marquette’s Buzz Williams and Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw aren’t just thinking about getting a win. The coaches agree the trip south is also about giving their players a deeper appreciation for the military and the sacrifice it takes to serve one’s country.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to get out of your box and realize you’re in the education business,” Foster said Thursday.
The event began last fall with North Carolina and Michigan State playing on an aircraft carrier off San Diego. This year, the classic was expanded and moved across country to the USS Yorktown, a carrier turned naval museum in Charleston’s harbor.
Festivities tip off today when last year’s national women’s runner-up, No. 7 Notre Dame, faces No. 19 Ohio State. Then a showdown between the fourth-ranked Buckeyes men’s team and Marquette follows on the flight deck turned basketball court. There are stands for about 4,000 people, about half of those military personnel who received donated tickets in thanks for their service.
“I’m thrilled to be here, even though I’m an Army guy,” said Foster, who served in Vietnam.
The four teams each had about an hour on the converted court, set between the carrier’s large command tower and the warship’s far end. A mesh backing was set up just a few feet from a basket to stop high rebounds or really bad passes from landing in the water some 30 feet below.
“That one end is intimidating. I didn’t know it would be so close to the edge of the ship,” Matta said. “After watching us pass the ball in practice, I hope they’ll have some extra ones.”
Players snapped cellphone pictures on the court before and after workouts. The court was bathed in bright sunshine and pelicans routinely buzzed the makeshift arena.
“This is one of the top five things I’ve ever done in my life,” Marquette’s Williams said.
The USS Yorktown has been moored near Charleston since 1975, five years after she was decommissioned. The Essex-class carrier first set sail in 1943 and served in the Pacific during World War II. It later took part in the Vietnam War and recovered the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968.
It stands as a museum, tracing the U.S. Navy’s history and featuring full-size aircraft used through the years. Classic spokesman Bill Anderson, a former assistant secretary of the Air Force under President George W. Bush, was grateful for the teams taking part to celebrate Veterans Day. Anderson proceeds from the games go to support U.S. troops through organizations such as the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, the Wounded Warrior Project and the Medal of Honor Society.
Williams arrived much earlier than Marquette’s scheduled practice time to check out the court and soak up the setting. His players, he said, were equally in awe as they walked up the narrow staircases and hunched through the tight doorways to the flight deck.
“I think it’s something our guys will always cherish,” Williams said. “It’s bigger than winning and losing.”
Still, these are games involving teams that all reached the NCAA tournament.
Matta’s Buckeyes made the Final Four last year and take the floor without stars Jared Sullinger and William Buford. Williams’ Golden Eagles fell to Florida in the NCAA’s round of 16. Earlier this week, Williams announced sophomore guard Todd Mayo was academically ineligible. Mayo, the brother of the NBA’s O.J. Mayo, had averaged nearly 8 points a game last year.
The Notre Dame women feature one of the game’s best in senior All-American point guard Skylar Diggins. Ohio State is led by the Big Ten’s leading scorer last season, Tayler Hill.
The coaches acknowledged the difficulty of judging their team’s progress in this environment. Matta’s looking for effort. Williams hopes his team gets off a few shots that won’t be blown sideways by the expected swirling winds.
“I think we’re good shooters,” Notre Dame’s McGraw said. “I don’t know if we will be in this game.”
McGraw said a big reason Notre Dame took part was former player Danielle Green-Byrd, who lost her hand and the lower part of her left arm when a grenade exploded while she was with the Army in Iraq in 2004.
Ohio State’s brother-sister combo of Aaron and Cait Craft have worried over older brother, Brandon, deployed by the Army to Afghanistan last March and scheduled to return home later this month.
“They’ve talked with him recently,” Matta said. “He’s safe and they’re expecting a very happy family reunion.”