Wide-eyed Tar Heels take it all in

SAN DIEGO -- For about a three-minute span Wednesday evening, something happened that North Carolina surely can't afford again this season: Point guard Kendall Marshall disappeared.

On a team tour of the USS Carl Vinson -- the 1,092-foot-long, 244-foot-high floating vessel where the top-ranked Tar Heels will face Michigan State in the inaugural Carrier Classic on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- the sophomore ducked away to use a bathroom.

"When I came out, all I saw were people in fatigues," the Naismith nominee said. "…They pointed me in the right direction, so after a couple of deep, short breaths I got back with my team."

He laughed at the moment: "That's when you realize how big this thing is."

The ship.

The game.

Everything that went into preparing to play a game of this scale.

"This is something totally different than we've ever done -- than anybody's ever done," Larry Gallo, a senior associate athletic director for UNC, said last week. "Playing outside, on Veterans Day, on an aircraft carrier -- that's a special thing. But there are a lot of questions that we just won't know the answers to until we get there."

Thus, even before the Tar Heels left Raleigh-Durham International Airport around noon ET on Wednesday -- with a water cannon salute, courtesy of American Airlines -- UNC's preparations for this trip were different than ever before.

With only 700 tickets available (most of the 7,000 seats in the open-air stands are reserved for the five branches of the military), officials had to decide how to divvy them up. The solution: about 100 to the chancellor's office, about 100 to the basketball office and roughly 500 to the Rams Club, the athletic department booster organization. The largest donors shelled out $4,000 per couple to help defray any school expenses not covered by the game's promoters.

Then there was the packing. With weather conditions in flux -- the latest forecast predicted a high of 69 degrees, with a 20 percent chance of rain, but who knows? -- the team had to ponder more than ever how many layers to take. Long-sleeved T-shirts in case the wind crept in? Long socks?

The Tar Heels brought along both, head manager Teon Watson said, making sure that the extra clothes were in color-sync with the special Carolina blue-and-white camouflage uniforms the players will don Friday.

"We just wanted to be ready for the unexpected," Watson said. "Because we just didn't know what to expect."

Finding their way

Indeed, until UNC boarded the Vinson on Wednesday -- riding a massive open-air elevator usually reserved for lifting fighter jets -- none of the players or coaches could really visualize what everyone had been preparing for.

Would they feel movement under their feet? Could a ball be blocked into San Diego Bay?

As the Tar Heels walked onto the still-being-constructed court for the first time (most holding some sort of personal camcorder), their eyes grew big.

"Kinda chilly," freshman James Michael McAdoo murmured as the sun began to set.

"Look at this," junior forward John Henson told a teammate as he pivoted in the post, flicked his wrist in a mimicked a hook shot -- and glanced up at the clouds as if trying to judge how far it could go.

The answer: sky high.

As the rest of the traveling party -- which included former Carolina stars Tommy Kearns, Tyler Hansbrough, Marvin Williams and Vince Carter -- was left on the 4.5-acre-long flight deck, the current players and coaches got their own tour: a 45-minute look into how thousands of sailors live while at sea.

The first realization was for a vessel so vast, there sure are a lot of tight squeezes.

"I've been telling all of 'em to be careful," said Roy Williams, watching closely as his 6- and 7-footers ducked through short hatches and doors and stepped down narrow staircases. (Only one player -- 6-foot-7 wing Reggie Bullock -- admitted to cracking his head. For several teammates, it was a close call.)

On the bridge, Williams sat in the chair of the commanding officer -- followed by Marshall, Justin Watts and anyone else who wanted a photo op.

On the hangar deck, players marveled at the vastness of an area where more than five dozen fighter jets are usually stored.

On the mess deck, they checked out the food and told tales of how much they could eat.

Perhaps the most memorable moment, though, came via 7-footer Tyler Zeller. Challenged by a safety officer to squeeze into a berth -- sleeping quarters so tight that the sailors call them "coffin racks" -- the senior managed to yoga his body into position and pose for pictures. Barely.

"My knees were sticking out the side, and it was close, but I did it," he said, grinning. "…No way I could do that every day."

But it gave everyone more appreciation for those who do.

"Just seeing their beds, the way they eat, what they have to do every morning -- it's amazing," said shooting guard Dexter Strickland. "And I feel honored to be playing here."

Time to play

Oh, yeah. There's a game.

With the long flight and tour behind them, Thursday turned to the final form of preparation for this event: practicing one more time for the actual competition.

Behind the buildup of playing the first college basketball game on an aircraft carrier, on 11-11-11, in front of President Barack Obama and hundreds of wounded warriors -- traditional Big Ten power Michigan State still poses a challenge to the Tar Heels.

Not to mention the possible wind.

"The breeze got it!" freshman P.J. Hairston joked when he finally missed a 3-pointer after a bevy of swishes during the late-afternoon shootaround on the Vinson.

Switching to the other corner, and missing another 3, the guard told a manager, "I think [the carrier] is tilted this way, because I was shooting better from the other side."

In all seriousness, UNC practiced indoors Thursday, at the Coronado Community Center, before returning to the flight deck for a chance to shoot under the lights and do interviews. Players said it was good to get back to the staples they will need to begin the season 1-0: focused defense, fast-paced transition, making the extra (and correct) pass.

Williams -- who called this event the neatest thing he has ever been involved with -- reiterated that he isn't worried about his Tar Heels losing their focus, despite all the distractions. His team has played in big games before, he pointed out.

But never on a stage quite literally so big.

"I think I'm going to hold hands with my teammates tomorrow just to make sure I get up to the court," said Marshall, laughing while explaining his strategy for not getting lost on the vast carrier again, especially on game day. "Once I get up to the court, I'll be fine."

Robbi Pickeral covers North Carolina for ESPN.com and can be reached at bylinerp@gmail.com. Follow Robbi on Twitter: @bylinerp.