It’s Christmas Day for basketball fans across the country, and the Georgetown faithful have an extra-special present under the tree.

The Hoyas kick off their season tonight against No. 10 Florida, a matchup analysts will watch closely for an indication as to whether John Thompson III’s squad can exceed preseason expectations once again. But the real story, for once, lies in the venue rather than the matchup.

The game will be played under the lights of the U.S.S.Bataan, an aircraft carrier stationed off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla. The game is just one of three showdowns at sea this weekend — Marquette and Ohio State will face off tonight in Charleston, S.C., while Syracuse and San Diego State play Sunday in San Diego.

Michigan State and North Carolina played on the U.S.S. Carl Vinson in San Diego last November in the inaugural “battleship game,” which was attended by President Obama and considered a resounding success.

Playing outdoors and at sea presents some unique challenges, though, as the Spartans and Tar Heels discovered when condensation on court decals caused several players to slip. While that particular issue will likely be addressed this year, chilly air — the Weather Channel is projecting a low of 42 degrees in mainland Jacksonville — and slight wind will still likely play a factor in tonight’s game.

Apparently, it takes more than a little cold to scare Thompson III and the Hoyas.

“It could be chilly,” Thompson III said. “They’re kids. They’re used to it.”

Junior point guard Markel Starks agreed.

“I play outside a lot during the offseason, so it’s going to be more of a homecoming for me,” he said.

Despite their high ranking, the Gators are limping into the much-hyped showdown. Head Coach Billy Donovan indefinitely suspended starting junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin yesterday for undisclosed reasons, and junior swingman Casey Prather is out with a concussion sustained earlier this week. Add in last month’s departure of troubled forward Cody Larson, and Donovan is looking at a thin roster.

“This throws a wrench [into our plans],” Donovan told ESPN. “We’ve got to do some things in practice to make some adjustments going into this game. You’ve taken three veterans players off of our team. Instead of having eight guys, you’re really down to five. Our freshmen are going to get a chance to play.”

Still, Florida is not to be taken lightly, as the senior duo of 6-foot-9 center Patric Young and 6-foot-10 forward Erik Murphy are likely to pose problems in the frontcourt. Young is a force of nature on the low block, and Murphy can stretch the floor with his agility and smooth jumper.

“We hope the elements get to him,” Thompson III joked when asked about Young. “He’s terrific, and they do a great job of spacing so that it’s hard to crowd him, hard to double.”

That’s a lot to ask of a young and undersized frontline, but the Hoyas are more prepared than most teams. Sophomore Mikael Hopkins, who will make his first start at center, played against Young at USA Basketball tryouts, while junior power forward Nate Lubick and Murphy were high school teammates.

“He’s a real physical guy, a big kid,” Hopkins said of Young. “But I’m ready to go against him.”

Experience can only go so far, though, in the face of superior offensive talent. Look for Thompson III to employ more of the 2-3 zone defense that frustrated so many teams last year in an effort to neutralize the Gators’ dangerous starting frontcourt.

Florida also returns its leading scorer in senior guard Kenny Boynton, a 6-foot-2 speedster who shot better than 40 percent from long range last season. Boynton will be asked to move over to the point in Wilbekin’s absence, and Georgetown returns more defensive experience on the perimeter than it does inside — both factors that should make an offensive explosion from the veteran unlikely. But if Boynton does manage to catch fire, the Hoyas could find themselves in over their heads quickly.

In any case, Starks isn’t intimidated.

“He’s just a player,” he said. “Do I think he can play? Yeah, absolutely. But he puts his pants on just like I do. I’m going to go out there and have to defend, and he’ll have to do the same.”

Starks will run the show once again in Thompson III’s Princeton offense. But according to the third-year floor general, fans shouldn’t expect to see a strictly halfcourt offense.

“Especially when we get it off rebounds, we can push,” Starks said. “The coaches emphasize to me every day, ‘You don’t have to necessarily get the ball in transition. You just run.’”

Both Starks and Thompson III refused to give a straight answer when asked about the starting five. Starks did mention that it featured “a lot of size, a lot of length,” which suggests that 6-foot-8 sophomore Greg Whittington has earned the starting two-guard spot. Sophomore guard Jabril Trawick will likely see heavy minutes off the bench as well, lending even more raw athleticism to an already dangerous full-court attack.

At the end of the day, Georgetown’s biggest Achilles’ heel — as perceived by fans and analysts, at least — is its lack of a dominant scorer. All eyes are on sophomore forward and offensive rebound vacuum Otto Porter to take on this role against a Florida team that struggled at times on the defensive glass.

“He was so good last year, and he’s improved in every area of the game, which is pretty important for us,” Lubick said. “He’s going to be somebody who puts the ball in the hoop a lot for us.”

The Hoyas are undeniably focused on the matchup at hand — they’ve been preparing for Florida for a week and a half, according to Lubick — but Thompson III emphasized the importance of putting on a show for the U.S. troops in the stands.

“A game’s a game. You put all your energy into a game, and you try to block everything else out. But this is different,” he said. “Once the ball goes up in the air, we’re going to be as prepared as ever. … But to have the opportunity to perform in front of our servicemen, in front of our sailors, [that is] something that we’re extremely honored to have.”

Tipoff is set for 9 p.m. and the game will be televised on the NBC Sports Network.

 

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