Men’s basketball enters First Four game mindful of seasoned Michigan State program
Redshirt junior forward Cody Riley will play in his first NCAA tournament when UCLA men’s basketball faces off against Michigan State in a First Four matchup. (Kristian Sabatino/Daily Bruin)
Thursday, 6:57 p.m.
By Jack Perez
March 18, 2021 12:17 p.m.
The Bruins and Spartans had to sweat it out, but the day has come for the two teams to help ring in the first NCAA tournament in almost two years.
No. 11 seed UCLA men’s basketball (17-9, 13-6 Pac-12) will open up its March Madness with a contest against fellow No. 11 seed Michigan State (15-12, 9-11 Big Ten) in a First Four matchup Thursday in West Lafayette, Indiana.
The Bruins and Spartans were chosen as First Four teams in the final quadrant announced during Selection Sunday and will close out the opening day of the tournament.
“Just seeing us show up on the screen towards the end was a sense of relief,” said redshirt junior forward Cody Riley. “Just excited that we’re going to be able to get experience in the tournament and also play against Michigan State. It’s kind of like a revenge game.”
The matchup will be a rematch of an NCAA tournament game from 10 years ago, in which UCLA prevailed by a score of 78-76. The two teams have also faced off over the last two years, with Michigan State winning both contests by a combined margin of 33 points over the nonconference games.
Coach Mick Cronin said his team’s Nov. 27, 2019 loss against the Spartans was a good learning lesson for his young Bruins.
“Last year they were highly rated. I think they were ranked third in the nation,” Cronin said. “They were a veteran team. It was a great experience for us. 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.”
Michigan State enters play Thursday after an up-and-down regular season. Coming off a 22-9 season in 2019-2020, the Spartans finished three games above .500 and ended with a losing record in the Big Ten for the first time since the 1992-1993 season.
Coach Tom Izzo was still able to extend his team’s tournament appearances to 23 straight years, as Michigan State has not missed March Madness since 1996-1997. However, the Spartans enter this year’s tournament with their worst seed in program history.
Cronin praised Izzo and said the Bruins will have their hands full with the Spartans even in a down year for the East Lansing team.
“Coach Izzo represents everything that’s good about college basketball,” Cronin said. “He has run his program the right way for a long time and I think he cares about the development of players as people before the basketball side of it, and he’s everything that’s right about coaching.”
While the Spartans have tournament experience on their side, the Bruin roster has none. No active member of Cronin’s squad played in UCLA’s last tournament appearance in 2018 – senior guard Chris Smith appeared in that game against St. Bonaventure but will miss Thursday’s matchup because of a torn ACL suffered on New Year’s Eve.
Redshirt sophomore guard Tyger Campbell said while he was looking forward to the opportunity to play in March Madness, his approach to gameday would not change just because of the setting.
“I’m really excited to play,” Campbell said. “I’m amped up to play. It’s a great opportunity for my team and I, but I’m really trying to take it like any other game. I say that not saying that I’m going into this game with not more intensity, not more attention to detail, I just want to go into this game like it’s another game – relaxed, calm, cool and collected.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 6:57 p.m. at Mackey Arena.