Michigan State to face UCLA in NCAA Tournament play-in game: 'It's one game at a time'
Michigan State spent the final two weeks of the regular season playing seven games over 15 days, scratching and clawing its way back to the NCAA Tournament.
When it was all said and done, the Spartans won five of those games, dispatching of three top-five teams in the process and appearing to lock up a spot in the NCAA Tournament. That belief was validated on Sunday as Michigan State earned a bid for the 23rd straight season.
However, the Spartans (15-12) will have to do a little extra, earning an 11-seed but being placed in a First Four game with UCLA with the winner advancing to face No. 6 BYU. Michigan State and UCLA will tip off at 9:57 p.m. Thursday at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., on the campus of Purdue University.
“Getting in is a big deal and it’s going to be exciting,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We’re happy we’re one of the 68 teams. Like I said when we had that daunting schedule, ‘We had an opportunity.’ We have another opportunity ahead of us. It’s one game at a time, but at Michigan State we play for the weekend. We always have and that will never change, I don’t care what seed they put me at. The object is to win the weekend and I can’t think of another team more prepared to play one-day preps that are back-to-back-to-back than we are.
“(The streak) was a chore to maintain it, but we got through it in a way that few could. I’m proud of my team, proud of my players and I’m happy for them.”
It was that late-season push that was critical as Michigan State sat at 10-9 overall with the NCAA Tournament seeming like a pipe dream.
But the Spartans made it and now have the second-longest active tournament streak after Duke’s ended this season after 24 straight years. Kansas earned a spot in the tournament for the 31st consecutive season, the longest streak in tournament history as well as the longest active streak. Top-seeded Gonzaga has made the tournament 22 straight times.
“The fact of the matter is we’ve got an opportunity,” senior Joshua Langford said. “At the end of the day, that's all we can do. So, we have to take advantage of that opportunity and we have to make the choice as a team, it has to be a collective decision, that we are going to give 110% because it’s win or go home now.
“But the fact of the matter is we have an opportunity, and nobody can take it from us. So, we just have to use that to the best of our ability.”
Getting in the play-in portion of the tournament means getting out of the weekend just got tougher. Michigan State has never been part of the First Four, but if it beats UCLA it moves on to face No. 6 BYU. A win there means one more game to get out of the weekend which could come against No. 3 Texas.
Three wins to get out of a weekend, instead of two.
It’s a tough road, but the Spartans feel the close to the season has them in a unique position to handle it.
“If we are still playing on Monday, it’s going to be one of the greatest things,” Izzo said. “We are battle tested. We’ve been through it all and I’m proud of them. We had our backs against the wall and we had to win. We played all those games with more one-day and two-day preps than anyone.
“We played some of the best teams in the country. Michigan is a 1-seed, Illinois is a 1-seed and Ohio State is a 2-seed. We’re as prepared as anybody and yet it’s new territory, so why should it be easy?”
While the Spartans ended the season strong before bowing out in the first round of the Big Ten tournament, UCLA (17-9) hasn’t been faring as well. The Bruins lost their final three regular-season games before getting knocked out of the first round of the Pac-12 tournament by eventual champion Oregon State.
In the meantime, Michigan State hung around Indianapolis, getting in a couple of practices and plenty of film work.
“It’s a fresh start and we’re going to be ready to go and we’re gonna play,” Izzo said. “It’s still a privilege and an honor to be in the tournament.”
It’s also an opportunity, one the Spartans aren’t about to take for granted. It even had Aaron Henry using a quote from old teammate Cassius Winston — “Chances make champions.”
“Cash used to say it a lot and it’s true,” Henry said. “We’ve got a chance to play basketball, we have a chance to win championships. To win a championship you have to win the weekend and we have to win the first game to win the weekend. Hopefully we’ll continue that.
“So, I’m excited. Chances make champions. That’s how I feel.”
No. 11 Michigan State vs. No. 11 UCLA
► Tipoff: 9:57 p.m. Thursday, Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.
►TV/radio: TBS/WJR 760
►Records: Michigan State 15-12; UCLA 17-9
► Outlook: Michigan State used a furious finish to the regular season to earn a 23rd straight bid, winning five of its final seven games, including three wins over top-five teams. A loss to Maryland in the Big Ten tournament likely led to the Spartans playing in the First Four where they’ll take on UCLA of the Pac-12. The Bruins have been heading in the opposite direction, losing their final three regular-season games before getting ousted in the first round of the conference tournament by Oregon State, which won the Pac-12 tournament.
A closer look at UCLA (17-12) heading into Thursday's First Four NCAA Tournament game against Michigan State at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.
UCLA has 11 national championships, the most recent coming in 1995
G, Tyger Campbell, 10.6 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 5.6 apg
G, Jules Bernard, 10.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.4 apg
G, Johnny Juzang, 14.2 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.8 apg
F, Jaime Jaquez Jr., 11.8 ppg, 6 rpg, 1.4 apg
F, Cody Riley, 10.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.2 apg
► Frontcourt: The Bruins are not a big team and compare more to Maryland when it comes to size. They’ll start essentially a four-guard lineup with 6-foot-9 Cody Riley as the only true forward. The redshirt junior has started 25 games this season and averages just more than 10 points a game, one of six players averaging in double figures. Sophomore Jaime Jaquez Jr. is a wing, but is more of a guard. Michigan State isn’t terribly big, either, but this is an area Marcus Bingham’s length could be an advantage as well as the muscle of Julius Marble.
►Backcourt: Much like Michigan State, UCLA has been effective playing small. Point guard Tyger Campbell earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors while Jaquez and Johnny Juzang earned second-team honors. Campbell, a former MSU recruiting target, is averaging 10.6 points and 5.6 assists a game and is top five in the Pac-12 in assist-to-turnover ratio. Jaquez is scoring 11.8 points a game and shoots 38.9% from 3-point range and was named to the conference’s all-defensive team while Juzang leads the team averaging 14.2 points a game, scoring at least 20 in four games.
► Bench: The Bruins don’t go too deep, relying heavily on their starters, but guard David Singleton is third in the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting, hitting 47.8% of his shots (33-for-69). In the frontcourt, junior Jalen Hill averages 18.6 minutes a game and at 6-10, he averages 5.9 rebounds a game, while Mac Etienne has seen his playing time increase.
►Coaching: Mick Cronin, the former Cincinnati coach, has been good in close games in two seasons with the Bruins. He’s 17-5 in games decided by five points or fewer. This season, UCLA has gone 10-2 in those games as five of the Bruins' last six victories have been by five points or fewer.