UCLA's Mick Cronin used MSU as barometer in 2019; now, they meet with season on the line

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Seven games into his tenure as UCLA’s coach, Mick Cronin got exactly what he wanted — a matchup with Michigan State.

That was back in November 2019 at the Maui Invitational when the Bruins rolled over Chaminade to set up a third-place game with the Spartans, who had lost their opener to Virginia Tech before beating Georgia. Cronin, the long-time Cincinnati coach who had just taken over at UCLA, had a goal to reshape the Bruins in a more physical mold, one that looked a lot like what Tom Izzo had created at Michigan State.

UCLA head coach Mick Cronin shouts at his team during the game with Michigan State in 2019.

“When Michigan State lost to Virginia Tech, I was like, ‘We need to beat Chaminade because we need to play Michigan State,’” Cronin said then in Maui, “because I talk a lot about them to our team since I've got the job. … In my interview (I said) if I could do half of what Tom Izzo's done at Michigan State, that that's my goal at UCLA. To run a program, run it the right way, win the right way, graduate players, everything. They’re about the team. Guys still make the NBA. They've got guys all over the NBA, and their guys win in the NBA because they're taught winning in college.

“There's a way to run an elite program, to make your university proud, not just to win games. It's the way Coach Izzo has run his program for 25 years.”

Cronin wanted to know then where his team stood against what he deemed an elite program.

Michigan State won that game, 75-62, though UCLA showed some toughness, winning the rebounding battle against a Spartans team that eventually went on to win a third straight Big Ten championship and was a popular pick to make a deep March run before the conference tournament and NCAA Tournament were cancelled.

Now, as the tournament tips off Thursday with the First Four, Cronin gets his next shot to see where his team stands. Michigan State and UCLA, both 11-seeds, square off in a play-in game at 9:57 p.m. at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana. The winner advances to take on No. 6 BYU on Saturday in Indianapolis.

“They are a veteran team and that was a great experience for us,” Cronin said Wednesday as his team prepared for its final practice. “My message last year, if I recall, was we're going to play against somebody that's going to teach us how hard you have to play to be a great program, and you have to do it for 40 minutes.”

UCLA (17-9) has taken that to heart, for the most part. The Bruins played well early in the season before injuries lingered, taking two starters from the lineup. That led to a four-game skid to close the season, landing the Bruins in the play-in game against another program that could be termed a “blue blood.”

It’s a term that certainly fits for UCLA, which has 11 national championships to its credit, but hasn’t captured one since 1995. That was about the time Izzo was taking over at Michigan State. Since then, he’s put the Spartans in a similar category with a national title, eight Final Four appearances and 23 straight bids to the NCAA Tournament.


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Izzo is flattered Cronin thinks so highly of his program, but he’s also not expecting the Bruins to lay down.

“It makes you feel good, makes you feel proud,” Izzo said. “Mick is a Midwest guy and he’s respected what we did. He coaches his team hard and he's going to be getting after those guys now, I promise you that. Hell, we were with him in Maui and he got after them. So, I have great respect for him, too, and I love people that coach people, and he coached them. He holds them accountable, and if he thinks we've done a good job, that’s the ultimate compliment of all.

“But he ain't taking no back seat, now. It's not like he's a rookie. He's been in this for a while, too, and he's done a hell of a job at Cincinnati and a hell of a job there.

"There's mutual respect.”

There’s also a mutual style. Both teams like to play hard defensively, though each has had rough patches this season. Michigan State (15-12) tightened up down the stretch and ended the season ranked in the top 30 in defensive efficiency while UCLA allowed 70 or more points in three of its last four games.

And each team has struggled to find offensive consistency while juggling lineups.

“They are versatile and they can score from a variety of places, they run good sets, they cut hard, man,” Michigan State’s Aaron Henry said. “We have to come prepared to play and understand that they switch sometimes on defense and they create matchup problems on offense.

“But it's just about what type of basketball game are we going to play? Are we going to play Michigan State basketball, or are we going to just go out there and not perform like we should? That’s what it comes down to. They present a lot of problems for a lot of people, but we have to come ready to play.”

Michigan State will have to do its best to contain UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell, a first-team All-Pac-12 player who is scoring 10.5 points a game and handing out 5.6 assists. He was a major recruiting target for Michigan State and was a high school teammate of former Spartan Jaren Jackson Jr.

And UCLA talked about trying to contain Henry and keeping the Spartans off the glass.

When it comes to winning or losing, though, Cronin summed it up best.

“Most important, it’s going to be made shots,” Cronin said. “You’ve got two teams pretty evenly matched. I'll take made shots over the fact that we played them last year."

East Region


Tipoff: 9:57 Thursday, Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Indiana

TV/radio: TBS/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.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau