MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (AP) - It's about much more than pick-and-rolls and double teams for the players starting their seasons aboard the USS Yorktown at the Carrier Classic.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta and Marquette counterpart Buzz Williams aren't just thinking about getting a win. They 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.
"This is one of the top five things I've ever done in my life," Williams said.
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 the country to the USS Yorktown, a carrier turned naval museum in Charleston's harbor.
Festivities tip off Friday when last season'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.
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."
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, both teams will be doing their best to get a victory.
Matta's Buckeyes (31-8) made the Final Four last season before falling to Kansas, but they must move on without stars Jared Sullinger and William Buford.
"Will and Jared, they are great guys who helped us build a tradition here," returning starter Lenzelle Smith Jr. said. "When they left, the tradition and the legacy is left behind. So we carry that on."
The Buckeyes are hoping to get even better with a team built around the prodigious talents of Deshaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and Smith - along with several players set to step into the spotlight.
"This team is athletic," Matta said. "I want them to use what they've got there. It correlates back to, hopefully, we're going to be able to score some off of our defense. That's why a major emphasis on the preseason will be getting our defense down."
Thomas, a preseason All-American, considered the NBA but returned for his junior season after averaging 15.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in Sullinger's shadow in 2011-12. Craft, a classmate, is back for his third year running the offense from his point guard spot, where he was selected as the Big Ten's top defender last March. He hit for 8.8 points and 4.6 assists a game.
There's more uncertainty for Williams' Golden Eagles (27-8), who fell to Florida in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 last season.
Jae Crowder, the Big East Player of the Year, and Darius Johnson-Odom had more than a little to do with it. And now they are both gone, earning NBA paychecks, leaving Williams to figure out how to replace their combined 35.8 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. Those numbers represent 47.5 and 32.8 percent of the team's totals, respectively, from a season ago.
It's a challenge that Williams has excelled at during his six previous seasons at Marquette, the last five as head coach.
"Every team is a house," Williams said. "We all live in that house and when the season's over, that house goes on the market and you can't live in it again. They were pretty impressive and you can argue that they were maybe the best (combination) of guys that's been here in a long time but relative to who replaces them and how that plays out, nobody knows that. We're in a different house."
Williams has a strong foundation for this project, starting with senior point guard Junior Cadougan, who averaged 6.3 points and 5.4 assists in 28.6 minutes per game. Guard Vander Blue and post players Chris Otule and Davante Gardner should play key roles along with Trent Lockett, a transfer from Arizona State.
Guard Todd Mayo won't be on the court for now because he's academically ineligible. Mayo, the brother of the NBA's O.J. Mayo, averaged 7.9 points as a freshman last season.
The Associated Press News Service
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