MOUNT PLEASANT — Thad Matta took in the Yorktown, complete with postcard views of Charleston church steeples, a sun-splashed harbor, the towering Ravenel Bridge. And the new wood-panel basketball court laid out on the flight deck for tonight’s Carrier Classic.
“Are you going to be ready to go?” the Ohio State head coach asked junior guard Aaron Craft.
“Look at this place,” Craft said. “How could I not be ready?”
The military appreciation theme touched players and coaches Thursday and will be on spectacular display today when Notre Dame plays Ohio State in a women’s game at 4 p.m. and Ohio State takes on Marquette in a men’s game at 7 p.m. Roughly half of the 4,300 tickets have been donated to military personnel.
The NBC Sports Network will televise the games nationally, with help from the Goodyear blimp.
“It would say this is one of the top five things I’ve ever done in my life,” Marquette head coach Buzz Williams gushed.
He contrasted the lives of full-scholarship basketball players and highly paid coaches to combat veterans in Afghanistan.
“It just seems so miniscule,” Williams said. “Like, we’re not deserving of something like this.”
If all goes well, the Carrier Classic might return to the Yorktown next year, and beyond.
“Staying year after year makes a lot of sense,” said Bill Anderson, the spokesperson for Morale Entertainment, a charity organization that raises awareness and funds for veterans. “But we have to talk to Patriots Point and all parties. … The first thing we have to do is get through the first games.”
The aircraft carrier basketball concept started last Veterans Day Weekend with Michigan State vs. North Carolina on the Carl Vinson aside San Diego. President Barack Obama attended.
Tonight’s women’s game is a high-profile matchup. Notre Dame is ranked No. 7 in the preseason Associated Press poll, Ohio State No. 19. Star power includes All-American candidates Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame and Tayler Hill of Ohio State.
Diggins, a 5-9 senior considered the best point guard in the country, averaged 16.8 points and 5.7 assists last season. Hill, a 5-10 senior shooting guard, scored 20.4 points per game.
The Ohio State men’s team is No. 4. The Buckeyes finished 31-8, reached the Final Four and won their third straight Big Ten regular season title last year in Matta’s eighth year as head coach.
Rebuilding Marquette, 27-8 last season, made its seventh straight trip to the NCAA tournament in 2012. Junior forward Davante Gardner (9.5 points, 5.3 rebounds) is the top returning player.
All four teams practiced at the Yorktown on Thursday.
Junior forward DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State’s leading returning scorer, joked that he was worried about Craft — the reigning Big 10 defensive player of the year — diving off the edge of the ship going for a loose ball.
Craft has Carrier Classic family ties. His sister, Cait Craft, is a freshman guard on the Ohio State women’s team. Brandon Craft, their brother, is in the Army and has been deployed in Afghanistan.
“This means a heck of a lot to them,” Ohio State women’s head coach Jim Foster said, “because he’s due home next week.”
Players on all four teams took part Thursday afternoon at Joint Base Charleston in a free clinic for children of military personnel.
Back at the Yorktown, Matta added perspective for all.
“Our guys are going to walk out of here (tonight),” he said, “and take a memory for a lifetime.”
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff
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