MILWAUKEE — How do you prepare to play a game outdoors on an aircraft carrier with the night sky and the Atlantic Ocean as your shooting backdrop?
Marquette coach Buzz Williams searched high and low for the correct answer. He had an idea to find a place to practice outside somewhere in the Milwaukee area. That didn’t work. All he could find was concrete and didn’t want to put his players at risk. Ohio State coach Thad Matta had the same experience. No luck.
As it turns out, there’s really no way to prepare for the unique elements of the Carrier Classic, which will feature Marquette against the fourth-ranked Buckeyes aboard the USS Yorktown on Friday night in Charleston, SC.
“That’s one of those things that you can’t really practice for,” junior forward Jamil Wilson said. “I think settling down and doing the things that we do every day in practice, doing the basics, trying not to get outside of our element too much, try not let the environment affect us too much.
“You aren’t used to looking at an ocean or a lake behind you. Everything will be different, but how quickly you adapt will dictate how we play and how the game goes.”
The Golden Eagles will have a shootaround Friday to adjust to the floor and shooting backdrop, but Williams is more concerned about the temporary lights — and also about opening the season against one of the nation’s top teams.
“They are good enough to win a national championship,” Williams said of Ohio State. ” … They have really, really, really good players.”
Though the Buckeyes lost two stars from last season in Jared Sullinger and William Buford, Ohio State is considered by many to be a Final Four contender, mainly thanks to preseason All-American forward Deshaun Thomas and reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year point guard Aaron Craft.
Though Thomas likely will be OSU’s leading scorer, Craft makes the team go. He may be the best on-ball defender in the country and just missed becoming a preseason All-American. Craft poses a giant challenge for Marquette point guards Junior Cadougan and Derrick Wilson. The Buckeyes junior will be especially motivated for the Carrier Classic because his brother was deployed to Afghanistan in March.
“He may be the peskiest defender in the country,” Williams said. “He is tough as nails. He plays to his ability and overachieves within that ability almost every single possession.
“I have the utmost respect for him. I haven’t seen him play live, but I think that Junior and Derrick will be able to compete against somebody that they know is going to give his absolute best every possession.”
Ohio State plays with extreme effort and is a tremendous defensive team, led by a coach in Matta who Williams believes deserves more attention. Despite the high preseason rankings, Matta’s club has a few question marks, and the Golden Eagles catching Ohio State early could be to their benefit.
Replacing Sullinger and Buford is no easy task. Sullinger was the focal point of OSU’s offense. He was often double-teamed, creating open looks for teammates. Buford was the club’s most consistent outside shooter and another ballhandler to take the pressure off Craft. The Buckeyes will rely on unproven but talented parts to replace the two mainstays.
Marquette, which made it to the Sweet 16 last season, also is replacing two important pieces: Big East player of the year Jae Crowder and leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom. However, it does bring back five players who averaged at least 17 minutes last season and has added Arizona State senior transfer Trent Lockett.
“A lot of people think our team isn’t that great without DJ and Jae, but we have a lot of returning guys that are back,” Jamil Wilson said. “We have a lot of experience under our belt. Starting off with a team like Ohio State, whose credibility is through the roof, lets you know where you are at as a team.
“It can be a confidence booster and it can be a confidence shatterer. To be the best you have to beat the best, and that’s one of the best teams out there. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The Golden Eagles also can’t think of a better way to start the season than by playing in a special event designed to honor the military. The players understand the reason the Carrier Classic exists and are humbled to be a part of it.
“The honor of doing something like this is way beyond words can explain,” Wilson said. “To provide entertainment for (the troops), to be an escape for a couple of hours, to get some excitement in their lives so they don’t have to worry about ducking and dodging bullets, it’s pretty cool.
“The excitement that’s built around it is unexplanatory.”