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November 8, 2011Top-ranked North Carolina's venue for its season-opening game against Michigan State is so unique that it captures the imagination and overshadows what will actually be two games and a pair of cross-country plane flights this weekend.
The Tar Heels will fly to San Diego, Calif., on Wednesday in order to take a look at the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, on which they will open the season against the Spartans at 7 p.m. (ET) on Friday, while trying to adjust to a three-hour time difference.
The game will be broadcast on ESPN.
"This game this weekend is going to shake everybody," Coach Roy Williams said. "This is an unusual deal. I think our mental preparation is something that is extremely important.
"I really do believe the elements will be a big factor in the game, so you have to be able to make adjustments."
A basketball court and stands are being placed on the deck of a ship that is normally used for fighter jets to take off and land at sea. Barring rain, which would force the game into the hanger deck below, the players must contend with a difference in temperature as the sun sets, an unknown amount of wind and a change in the lighting.
"I have so many questions about it," sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall said. "Nothing is really making sense about it to me right now. I think all the questions will be answered when we get out there."
Just the idea of playing a game outside is foreign to today's players.
"Growing up, I didn't really play a lot outside, so that will be interesting from that aspect of it," senior forward Tyler Zeller said. "But then again, it's our first game of the year. Usually you have a few teams to warm up with and kind of get the jitters out. But this year we go straight into Michigan State. We will have to be a little more prepared for the first game."
Playing Michigan State is always a challenge in itself, but where this weekend is going to get really tough is on Sunday when the Tar Heels will play at UNC Asheville to help the Bulldogs open their arena at 4 p.m.
This will come one day after taking the red-eye from San Diego back to the East Coast.
"We don't have any shower facilities on the ship, so we're leaving after the game and going back to the hotel, showering and changing clothes," Williams said. "Then we're going to the airport and flying all night to get to Asheville.
"We'll get there at 5 or 6 Saturday morning, let them sleep in a little while and then have a quick turn-around practice Saturday afternoon."
Shedding jet lag from an all-night cross-country flight often takes people as much as a week. Williams is asking his team to do it instantly.
He said his friends in coaching questioned his sanity in taking on such a demanding start to the schedule, but he said he believes this team deserves to be tested.
"We have a pretty good team, so I think we should challenge them," Williams said. "If it were like '06 and 2010, I would have been scared stiff, but we want to see how we respond."
The biggest question might be how Marshall's back responds to two cross-country flights. He recently hurt it in practice, and sitting on a plane for that amount of time can aggravate such an injury.
But Williams and his players said they are nothing but eager to start the season in such a unique fashion, mainly because the game is meant as a tribute to the military, which will comprise most of the audience.
There will be one other important spectator. President Barack Obama is planning to attend the game as a stopover on a trip to Hawaii.
"It's a big-time deal," Williams said. "He's a basketball junkie. I'm hopeful he'll enjoy it."
Whatever happens, the players said they are sure it's going to be a memorable experience.
"My grandmother was a Lt. Col. in the army," Marshall said. "She tells me stories. My dad went through basic training. They know what it takes to work hard, and they try to instill that in me.
"It's an experience I'll hold onto for the rest of my life."