Not many firsts remain for the Gonzaga men’s basketball program, but there’s one coming Nov. 11.
The Zags will face Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in San Diego Harbor in honor of Veterans Day. The contest, which will air in primetime on ESPN, marks the return of ESPN Events’ Armed Forces Classic that was sidelined the past two years by COVID-19.
“We are extremely honored to be a part of the Armed Forces Classic,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said in an ESPN release. “This is a special opportunity for our program to support those who fight for our country in our own small way. We’re excited to face an incredible program in Michigan State and a great colleague in coach (Tom) Izzo. I’m sure this will be a great memory for all of us.”
It’s another marquee contest for Gonzaga, which has Michigan State, Texas (Nov. 16 in Austin), the PK85 (Nov. 24-27 in Portland), Baylor (Dec. 2 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota), Washington (Dec. 9) and Alabama (Dec. 17 in Birmingham) on its schedule during the first six weeks of the season.
The Zags, bolstered by the return of player of the year candidate Drew Timme, junior wing Julian Strawther and fifth-year senior Rasir Bolton, are in the running to be preseason No. 1 for the third consecutive season. Michigan State, which lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, is No. 25 in CBS Sports Top 25 and 1, but didn’t make ESPN’s way-too-early top 25.
This will be the first college game staged on an aircraft carrier in a decade. Several previous ones encountered wet or windy conditions and players occasionally slipping on the court. It will mark the first time for the Zags playing on an aircraft carrier and the second for the Spartans, who lost to North Carolina 67-55 in the first Carrier Classic in 2011 on the USS Carl Vinson in San Diego.
“This is tragic,” former Spartans standout Draymond Green tweeted a month ago, when it was first reported GU-MSU were negotiating to play on an aircraft carrier. “Give the veterans a game inside a gym. Makes for much better and safer basketball. Playing in that game was incredible for the meaning, but the game was awful.”
Gonzaga faced Pittsburgh in the 2015 Armed Forces Classic at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Butler in Okinawa, Japan. The game was called off at halftime with Pitt leading 37-35 because of unsafe court conditions.
“It’s hard to predict the logistics and all that,” Few said a few days ago in Las Vegas, where he was watching former Zags in the NBA Summer League. “Everybody does a great job of trying to prepare then you just hope you pull it off because it’s a pretty powerful experience, basically. So that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
ESPN Events vice president Clint Overby told the San Diego Union-Tribune there will be contingency plans if weather conditions don’t cooperate.
“Certainly, there will be a Plan B that we will outline at a later date,” Overby said. “We’re working through that with the schools right now with respect to what Plan B looks like in the event of high winds, rain, precipitation or whatever.
“Anytime you’re outside you’re dealing with unknowns. No matter how good the predictive models are, there is some uncertainty you have to contend with. The good news is that both coaches and their administrations and athletes feel confident about the opportunity and want to proceed. They understand the disruptions that could exist. In light of all that, I think this is a really good opportunity and the schools feel the same.”
The North Carolina-Michigan State game was watched by 8,111, including President Obama, but there won’t be as many seats available for Gonzaga-Michigan State. Seating will be limited to invited military members and some team allotments. There will be no tickets for the general public, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“This opportunity to play on an aircraft carrier in front of the men and women who willingly put their lives on the line will be an experience that is going to mean something to the young men who will play in the game for a long, long time,” Izzo said. “I said it the time in 2011 when we played North Carolina on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson – one of the most humbling experiences of my career, and I’ll say it again, we’re going to play one of the top teams in the country and we’re going to be hosted by the No. 1 team in the world.”
Gonzaga’s schedule usually includes an annual trip to San Diego to face the Toreros, but the only meeting between the schools this season will take place in Spokane.
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