ABOARD THE USS CARL VINSON, U.S. NAVAL AIR STATION, Coronado, Calif. -- The event was beautiful, but the game was ugly.
That will be the legacy of the inaugural Carrier Classic, a delightful spectacle played on a cool, breezy evening on the San Diego harbor. The stands were filled with Navy men and women in uniform. President Obama munched snacks from his courtside seat. From the parade of colors to the official folding of the American flag, the Classic offered a fitting, inspiring salute to the men and women who risk their lives defending the United States.
Taking center stage, North Carolina and Michigan State did their level best to provide a compelling showcase, but the Tar Heels' 67-55 victory will not go into the time capsule from a purely competitive standpoint. The Spartans shot 31 percent from the floor and made just 2 for 20 from three-point range. They also committed 15 turnovers which led to 19 Carolina points. North Carolina wasn't much better from behind the arc (they made 4 of 12), and though they were in control throughout, the Tar Heels got pounded on the backboards by 15. North Carolina looked bigger, Michigan State looked tougher, neither team looked real good.
This, of course, is to be expected in the first game of the season. The setting and the elements made it tougher. The lighting was odd. The breeze was blowing. The court was a little slippery. And the players came out a little nervous. "I'm sure the shooting was affected. We didn't shoot well and they weren't much better, to be honest," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "If you looked at the lighting maybe that could have been a little higher. It's hard to shoot right into the lights like that. But all in all, when you think about what the military did to put this thing on, it was pretty awesome."
Indeed, it was. Both teams got to spend time with President Obama before tipoff. "It was kind of crazy. He knew who most of us were," said North Carolina sophomore forward Harrison Barnes, who had 17 points, five rebounds and two assists. "He was like, hey Harrison, are you gonna make some threes tonight? It was a great experience."
It's hard to imagine that any basketball fan, even one with a demanding day job, wouldn't know who Barnes is by now. He looked like a different player than this time last year, when he wilted while beginning his college career amid crazy hype. "I remember my first game against Lipscomb. I got my first two points and I couldn't breathe. I had cotton mouth, I was so nervous," he said. Barnes showed a lot more poise when he took the court Friday night. His body holds the 15 pounds of muscle he added in the offseason well. Barnes is also a much better communicator. He is more relaxed in conversation with reporters as well as folks in the athletic department. This is, of course, what's supposed to happen in college. Harrison Barnes is growing up.
The other freshmen on the court Friday night were also talented, but they still have growing up to do. North Carolina brought in two McDonald's All-Americans in James Michael McAdoo and P.J. Hairston. They played 17 and nine minutes, respectively, but did not have much impact. "They would have played more if they had played better," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. McAdoo conceded that he was nervous, and if things could have gone better for him, he knows they could also have gone worse. "At least I didn't do anything too crazy like miss a wide open dunk," he said.
The Spartans, meanwhile, have their own freshmen who will need to grow up fast. The night's scariest moment was when their prized recruit, 6-foot-6 swingman Brendan Dawson, slipped on the decal at half-court and went down clutching his knee. He returned to the game and finished with 10 points and seven rebounds in 35 minutes. Their other freshman, backup point guard Travis Trice, made some nice, pinpoint passes (three assists) but followed them up with horrible shot selection (1 for 8 from the field).
Michigan State needs Trice to be more effective because sophomore guard Keith Appling is still trying to figure out how to play the point. Appling is a natural scorer, but he has stopped looking for his shot as he figures out how to run the offense. He picked up his fourth foul early in the second half and was limited to 19 minutes.
"He's better than he was tonight, but we need him to be too," Izzo said. "He was awful. He didn't do anything. He got those fouls and it took the wind out of his sails."
So we saw one really good team playing just OK, and one decent one showing that it has some potential. All in all, a good start. But in the final analysis, this game won't be remembered for who won, who lost and how well (or poorly) they played. Hopefully, many decades from now, it will be remembered as the start of something really good, for America and for college basketball. "This is one of the neatest things I've ever been involved in," Williams said.
He wasn't talking about the game.