Battered Bruins Limp off to Tampa to Rumba with Michigan State in the Big Dance
Believe it or not, UCLA’s humiliating loss to Oregon may have been a blessing in disguise. Not only did it allow the ailing Bruins a few extra days of rest and recuperation, but it ended up NOT hurting their Seeding in the NCAA Tournament, nor the difficulty of their draw. Even if the Bruins had beaten the Ducks and maybe the Huskies and/or Wildcats too, their ultimate berth in March Madness wouldn’t have been much better than a 7th Seed.
The Bruins are part of the “Southeast” Region, and are traveling to Tampa to play the 10th-seeded Michigan State Spartans. The game will be televised by TBS, at 6:20pm. If UCLA wins, they will play #2 Florida, assuming the Gators can dispatch the #15 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos. Florida, you’ll probably remember, knocked the Bruins out of two straight Final Fours, in ’06 and ’07, so vengeance could be there for the taking. And if the Bruins somehow manage to pull that off, they would likely face BYU or St. John’s in the Sweet Sixteen, two teams whom the Bruins have already defeated this year. If UCLA can get by that potential rematch, they could face #1-seeded Pittsburgh (and Ben Howland’s former Assistant Jamie Dixon) for the right to go to the Final Four.
None of those above possibilities are un-doable, so Bruin fans can go ahead and dream about Shining Moments for now. However, while all the games are winnable, they are all easily lose-able too, including Round One. MSU has a rich tradition that includes Magic Johnson’s Spartans winning it all about 33 years ago, and also a LIVE streak of 14 STRAIGHT appearances in the NCAA Tournament. That’s THIRD-LONGEST in the entire Country, behind only Kansas (22) and Duke (16). But even more daunting is their RECENT History: They have gone to the Final Four in SIX of the last 12 Tourneys, including last year and the year before. Coach Tom Izzo could be about to pull off a “Howland,” with three straight Final Four trips.
At the start of the season, the Spartans were a good bet to get that threepeat. They were ranked #2 in the Nation, having most of their back-to-back squad returning from last year. But they have struggled this season, going 19-14, and were fortunate to make the Tourney at all. Their players admitted being nervous as the brackets were announced, because three regions came and went without Michigan State being called. But don’t let that get you cocky — They beat #9 Purdue last week in the Big-10 Tournament, and they beat Washington earlier in the year — A team that the Bruins could NOT defeat in two tries. And a week after the Spartans said aloha to the Huskies in Maui, they traveled to Duke, and just missed beating the Blue Devils in Durham, losing by only 5 points.
Early betting lines show Michigan State — despite having a worse seed than the Bruins — being FAVORED by a point and a half. The oddsmakers know that bettors know that UCLA is coming off a 17-point loss to unranked Oregon, and is struggling with injuries, not to mention inconsistent play by a few key players, injured or not.
It will be a chess match for sure, with two of the Nation’s top Coaches matching wits. Izzo and Howland are oftened compared, due to their teams’ more methodical style of play, and hard-nosed Defense. But the edge in this one is being given to Izzo’s bunch, mainly because they have Seniors, and because the Spartans have “been there before.” While MSU is coming off consecutive Final Fours, the Bruins weren’t even invited to the Dance last year. 80% of the key Bruins have NO March Madness experience, and that “green-ness” should benefit the Green-clad Spartans.
On the flip-side, there are two good things about playing Michigan State: First of all, getting knocked out in the First Round by a big-time Program like MSU isn’t nearly as devastating as getting knocked out by Princeton or Detroit Mercy. Those two losses still linger for long-time Bruin fans. That won’t be an issue this year. Secondly, the Bruins are young and immature, and tend to overlook schools with no tradition, while they usually save their most inspired efforts for “name” teams like Kansas. Not that players should really NEED extra motivation for a Tournament match-up, but seeing the Michigan State jerseys should definitely keep the Bruins from taking anything for granted. And when the Bruins “come to play,” they can compete with anyone… as long as their injuries allow it.