Two of the most notable games in Friday’s college basketball program take place on an aircraft carrier and in a ballpark.
Gonzaga #2 meets Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in San Diego Harbor to celebrate Veterans Day. Wisconsin plays Stanford at American Family Field, the retractable roof park home of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Hosting games in neutral venues in non-traditional locations is not new. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has scheduled games in many different venues over the past two decades.
“We’ve been ‘Outside the Box U’ for 20 years and other people are catching up,” Izzo said. “That’s good, and that’s why I didn’t want to miss this game.”
Izzo’s love of it began in 2003 when Michigan State lost to Kentucky in front of 78,129 fans at Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Soon, many NCAA late-round tournament games were being played in soccer stadiums.
This won’t be the first time Izzo has coached a game on an aircraft carrier.
Michigan State lost to leaders North Carolina on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson in November 2011, while President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama watched from the sidelines.
Stanford coach Jerod Haase was North Carolina’s assistant coach for that 2011 game. Now he’s preparing his team to play the first basketball game in an all-ballpark since San Diego faced San Diego State in 2015 at Petco Park, home of the Padres.
“It’s an experience for our boys to talk about, when they’re old like me, about how they played in a ballpark,” Haase said.
The fancy settings present potential obstacles, especially when they are outdoors. The roof closes for the American Family Field doubleheader, which includes a women’s game between Wisconsin and Kansas State.
The 2011 North Carolina-Michigan State game on an airline ended less than an hour before it rained.
A year later, condensation on their respective courts wiped out a game between Ohio State and Marquette aboard the defunct USS Yorktown in Charleston, South Carolina, and a game between Georgetown and Florida aboard the USS Bataan in Gainesville, Florida. Florida and Georgetown played the first half before the game was scrapped.
During that 2012–13 season, a game between Syracuse and San Diego State aboard the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum was delayed two days due to rain. And windy conditions affected 3-point shooting when it was played.
The teams involved believe the opportunity is worth the potential downside.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few jumped at the chance when the idea of playing on a career came up.
“Tom Izzo told me it was the coolest thing he’s ever done,” Few said. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m in.'”
Wisconsin coach Greg Gard says his hopes of letting the Badgers play a game at American Family Field began about 15 years ago when he was an assistant coach and the stadium was known as Miller Park.
Various plans have been discussed over the years.
“We wanted to do a double-header basketball hockey and put ice up in the outfield,” Gard said. “Everything was on the table at some point.”
Gard is about to make that dream a reality – without an ice rink.
Wisconsin and Stanford practiced Thursday with baskets near first and third bases on a court that encompasses much of the ballpark’s infield.
The pitcher’s mound has been removed and fans will be seated in temporary pitchside stands as well as some of the stadium’s permanent seats.
“When we listened to our players when we came out of the dugout what their reactions were, I thought it came out really, really well,” Gard said.
Wisconsin forward Tyler Wahl, who has only attended one Brewers home game, tried to imagine what to expect on Friday.
“I’m curious to see how it looks with basketball and bring a completely different crew of fans,” said Wahl. “Hopefully it will be cool.”
It may not be a one-off deal.
Rick Schlesinger, Brewers’ president of business operations, said he’s confident the competition will be the first of many opportunities to host hoop games at the ballpark.
Gard says he’d love to see an NCAA regional event at American Family Field, although hosting such an event in late March might be difficult while the ballpark’s lawn is still ready in time for baseball season.
For now, Wisconsin and Stanford are looking forward to a unique experience in an atypical preseason game. Michigan State and Gonzaga agree.
“I’m a bit old school and I believe there’s a lot more to college education than just what you learn in the classroom and the games themselves,” Haase said. “It’s all the experiences around them. I think that offers that.”
AP writer Nicholas K. Geranios and AP sports writers Larry Lage and Bernie Wilson contributed to this report.