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Monday November 5, 2012Significance of Navy-Marine Corps Classic Not Lost on Gators

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One of the things Tom Izzo just could not get over -- beyond the pageantry, beyond the spectacle, beyond the vista -- was the gratitude being showered on his basketball team.

When Michigan State faced top-ranked North Carolina on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson under a gorgeous pink and purple Pacific Ocean sunset last November, the Spartans coach was floored by it all -- the crowd of nearly 8,000 uniformed soldiers, the flyover, the Commander in Chief, everything.

For Izzo, it was almost too awe-inspiring to take in.

“I thanked President Obama and he thanked us,” Izzo told reporters that night. “We were all trying to thank somebody, but the damn military was thanking you. And it’s killing me because they do so much for us -- and they’re thanking us.”

And that was before the game.

As for during?

UNC All-America forward Harrison Barnes caught himself looking at the scenery around him rather than MSU forward Draymond Green.

"I was just sort of jogging, waving, 'Oh hey, there's a sailor,' " Barnes said that night. "We're all just looking around, taking it easy, looking around. I had to remind myself, 'OK, this is a game. I have to focus.' It was hard."

But it also was glorious.

"I mean, standing on that ship, and the President of the United States is walking out and they're playing the music," Williams said recently, looking back on his team’s 67-55 win that rang in the 2011-12 season. "You can see the sun's about to set. I'm sitting there and at that moment I said, 'Roy Williams, you're one of the luckiest guys that's ever walked on the earth.' "

Now, it’s the Gators’ turn.

Though it won’t have the novelty of being the first, when 10th-ranked Florida tips off the 2012-13 season Friday night against Georgetown on the deck of the USS Bataan at Naval Station Mayport outside Jacksonville, the moment will be a snapshot that Gators everywhere -- especially those fortunate ones onboard in Jacksonville for the start of Veterans Day weekend -- can savor for the rest of their lives.

“It’s just extremely meaningful,” said Mike Hill, UF’s executive associate athletics director for external affairs. “The significance of this event will not be lost on our team and won’t be lost on the fans. Not just because of the weekend it falls on, but also for the significance of college basketball in the state of Florida. This is a big, big deal.”

Michigan State athletics director Mark Hollis brainstormed the idea of playing a game on a ship to honor the military. UF actually was involved in early conversations as a potential opponent for the Spartans in last year’s game.

When MSU landed UNC, Hill made it a point to keep in touch with the principals involved in the game for seasons down the line. Then came a phone call in May from Alan Verlander, the city of Jacksonville’s new executive director of sports and entertainment.

Verlander told Hill he was working on getting a ship to come to town and wondered if the Gators would be interested in a game.

UF already had locked up its schedule, but both Hill and Coach Billy Donovan knew, for this, they had to adjust.

“I told Billy there was no way a ship could be docked in Jacksonville for a basketball game and the University of Florida not be in that game,” Hill said. “He agreed. He also wanted the toughest opponent possible.”

The city flirted with several high-profile schools, but all were locked into their schedules. When a program with the pedigree of the Hoyas became an option, all parties were delighted.

Now, the really ecstatic people are going to be the limited fans -- only 300 from each school got tickets, while most of the remaining 2,900 on hand will be military personnel -- under the stars that night.

“What excites me is that we’re talking about a unique, basketball experience in early November,” Hill said.

The Florida-Georgetown game will be one of four games with the military as a backdrop on Friday night.

Michigan State and Connecticut officially will start the season inside a hanger on Ramstein Air Base in Germany at 5:30 p.m. Ninety minutes later, Marquette and Ohio State will play on the USS Yorktown, a museum permanently docked in Charleston, S.C., starting around 7 p.m., followed by Syracuse and San Diego State on the USS Midway in San Diego.

The Gators and Hoyas will play at 9:19 p.m., with the game to be televised by the NBC Sports Network.

Pretty good company.

The game will have its logistical drawbacks, starting with playing outside, though extended forecasts are calling for clear skies and temperatures in the mid-50s. Wind is always a possibility, which will be a concern for a UF team that thrives on the 3-point shot.

Then there’s the unfamiliarity -- even quirkiness -- of walking onto a Navy vessel, ducking tall bodies through hallways and doorways, having a makeshift locker room in a boiler room and, ultimately, putting it all aside to play a game of basketball under the stars.

In last year’s game, the Spartans and Tar Heels had their normal pre-game warm-ups, but then had to ask for a second warm-up session after President Obama gave a pre-game speech that was longer than anticipated. Later, in the first half, the game was stopped at sunset for the lowering of the colors.

The teams also complained of minor condensation issues on the court.

Inconveniences? Sure. 

 Worth the potential pitfalls? Absolutely.

"Other than the Final Four, winning the national championships, I enjoyed that experience more than any game I've ever been involved in," Williams said. "There were some things that went on that were frustrating.

"But the game was so huge, and the feeling you got from the military people was so big, that it made all these other things seem so small ... compared to the love that I had for being there in front of our military, talking to our guys and girls, and the feel that I had."

Those kinds of testimonials made this an easy call for the Gators.

"If we felt that kind of event was so problematic that it would be a negative experience, we wouldn’t want to participate,” Hill said. “But we have a great relationship with the city of Jacksonville. They do a fantastic job every year hosting the Florida-Georgia game.

"Michigan State and North Carolina proved it could be done despite the challenges. They overcame a lot. We were willing to do that because of the experience for our kids and our program."


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