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Preview: MSU faces UCLA in First Four to open NCAA Tournament

March 18, 2021
<p>MSU guard Rocket Watts (2) dribbles in the Big Ten basketball tournament during the game against Maryland on March 11, 2020.</p>

MSU guard Rocket Watts (2) dribbles in the Big Ten basketball tournament during the game against Maryland on March 11, 2020.

Photo by Alyte Katilius | The State News

March Madness is about to begin, and Michigan State men's basketball is up as one of the First Four to play into the series.

On Thursday night at Mackey Arena on Purdue's campus, the Spartans (15-12) will face off with the Bruins of UCLA (17-9) to secure their spot in the tournament. Both teams are No. 11 seeds in the East region and hoping to progress on to the first round, where they would face off with No. 6 seed BYU (20-6) on Saturday.

This is the 50th all-time appearance for the Bruins, and the 23rd consecutive year for the Spartans.

UCLA has 11 NCAA Championship titles, 10 of those come from between 1964 through 1975. The last time the Bruins were in the NCAA Tournament was 2018, where they fell to St. Bonaventure, 65-58, in the first round.

This will be Mick Cronin's first appearance as the Bruins' head coach, but he is one of just five coaches to have led his teams to the past 10 NCAA Tournaments, including nine consecutive as the head coach at Cincinnati (2011-19).

Also on that list is Head Coach Tom Izzo, who holds the second-longest active streak of March Madness appearances among all coaches.

After the regular season, there were quite a few Bruins given PAC-12 Conference honors:

Redshirt sophomore guard Tyger Campbell made the All-PAC-12 First Team, ranking No. 2 in the conference with 5.6 assists per game and No. 4 in his assist-turnover ratio of 2.8-to-1.

He also ranks No. 4 in minutes per game (34) in the PAC-12.

"His hair is the same and that's how I can notice him," Izzo said to the media Tuesday. "But to me he's a lot thinner, I think he's done a great job with his body. He's quicker, I think his shot is better. He's a likable kid – we always liked him. I think he has matured a lot and I think they have done a great job with him because he's the still the straw that turns that drink. He's more of a traditional true point guard – he can score himself but he's looking to get people involved. If you ask me, he's gotten quicker, thinner and those things kind of go hand-in-hand, and a little more under control with his game that I think has really helped him, too."

Sophomore guard Johnny Juzang, who transferred to UCLA from Kentucky, made the All-PAC-12 Second Team, leading the conference in free-throw percentage (93.3%, or 42-of-45). Sophomore guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. also made the All-PAC-12 Second Team, ranking No. 7 in the conference for minutes per game with 33.8.

Junior guard David Singleton was ranked No. 3 in the conference for 3-point percentage shooting (45.9%, 34-of-74) through Monday.

When asked about similarities and differences between the two teams, Izzo said, "They don't play real big and we don't play real big. I think they are a tougher team and pretty good defensively and they have been a little sporadic offensively too. He controls things a lot more, they don't run like we do, but we do run a little better, that Juzang kid from Kentucky is playing well for him lately and of course their point guard, you know, has been in the system for three years. Yeah, you're right, there are some similarities, there some differences but I do like the matchup. I think we match up pretty good. I think as coaches we kind of believe in the same thing. I mean Mick is a tough, he is a Bob Huggins disciple, I'm a Jud Heathcote disciple. I don't know if that's good or bad or indifferent…So I'll just say that we do have some similarities for a west coast team, I think they are different than a lot of west coast teams as he came from the Midwest."

The Bruins are 6-4 against the Spartans in the all-time series that began as early as 1952. Most recently, MSU defeated UCLA, 75-62, in the 2019 Maui Invitational and, 87-67, at the 2018 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational.

Their only previous tournament meeting was in 2011 in Tampa, Florida, where UCLA edged MSU, 78-76, in the first round.

"I'm not worried about facing anybody in this tournament," Izzo said. "I don't feel comfortable with UCLA and BYU or Texas, but I don't feel afraid of UCLA, BYU or Texas or anybody else because we truly, truly have played the best teams in the country on a night-in and night-out bases and especially in the last two to three weeks."

Junior forward Aaron Henry said that Izzo carries a lot of weight on himself, but it's something to keep note of.

"My freshman year we go to a Final Four, last year we won the Big Ten Championship as the season gets cut short and this year isn't the year we all expected, but you know he's been the same in preparation and how he approaches things," Henry said. "You know that's the type of coach he is, the type of person he is and you know it's a testament to what this program has become over the years and ... I'm glad I'm in a position to always be able to ride with him. Knowing he is going to give me 100 percent every time."

Thursday's tipoff is slated for 9:57 p.m. on TBS.

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