Amid four-game losing streak, UCLA relieved to make NCAA tournament
As one matchup after another was revealed Sunday, the NCAA tournament selection show moving briskly through its first 3½ regions without mention of UCLA, the Bruins had their one pining moment.
Please, just let us in.
There was ample reason to worry. UCLA was coming off four consecutive losses, all via collapse after leading by at least eight points in each game. The Bruins had been bounced by Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference tournament. They arguably had only one quality win, over Colorado … in early January.
Increasing the anxiety level was what was happening around the nation. Heavy underdogs Georgetown and Oregon State had won their respective conference tournaments, stealing bids from bubble teams like UCLA.
Bruins coach Mick Cronin said he wasn’t worried, with assistant coach and resident bracketologist Michael Lewis having delivered his verdict after checking 90 mock brackets. Lewis assured his boss that UCLA was going to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018, when the Bruins lost to St. Bonaventure in a First Four game.
It’s been 26 years since a team from Los Angeles last won an NCAA title, and that’s why UCLA’s and USC’s dance into March Madness 2021 is so promising.
Most of the players, gathered in front of a television on their practice court, weren’t as certain. Oregon, the Pac-12’s regular-season champion, was relegated to a No. 7 seed. Rival USC, which had swept the Bruins and finished second in the conference, was only a No. 6.
Down to the final four matchups, CBS announcer Greg Gumbel finally uttered those four sweet letters. UCLA (17-9) would play Michigan State (15-12) in a First Four game on Thursday at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., with the winner becoming the No. 11 seed in the East Region and facing No. 6 Brigham Young on Saturday.
“The mood of the room was very stressful, very tense,” Bruins guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. acknowledged, “but once we heard our name called, we just had a sigh of relief and we were all just very happy.”
The Bruins broke into a torrent of applause, rising from their chairs to exchange hugs. Then it was on to the more sobering realization of just what they were getting into.
This will be a heavyweight matchup of college basketball blue bloods that have endured their share of bruises this season. After having initially overachieved upon the loss of its best player (Chris Smith) and its top interior defender (Jalen Hill), UCLA staggered its way into the NCAA tournament with six losses in its last 10 games, prompting Cronin to turn the last few days into an extended pep rally.
“It’s making sure our guys understand that we’re a good team,” Cronin said, “and they can win.”
Michigan State absorbed its blows early in the season, losing to (gasp!) Northwestern as part of a 10-9 start before toppling Illinois and Michigan, Big Ten Conference rivals who would go on to become No.1 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
USC will play the Wichita State vs. Drake winner on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. UCLA will face Michigan State in a First Four game on Thursday at 6:57 p.m.
The optics of a down season amid a pandemic probably won’t offset the allure of the brand names; it’s still UCLA versus Michigan State.
“When I saw it,” Bruins forward Cody Riley said of a matchup he learned about while sitting in a cold tub after practice, “I was like, man, that’s a heck of a play-in game.”
Michigan State has been a longstanding national power under coach Tom Izzo, winning the national championship during the 1999-2000 season and making seven additional appearances in the Final Four. Before the Spartans manhandled the Bruins last season in the Maui Invitational, Cronin said he wanted to model his program after Izzo’s.
Unlike the Spartans, who have played in 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments under Izzo, the Bruins do not have one healthy player on their roster who has performed on college basketball’s biggest stage.
But the odds of a deep tournament run are long for both teams. Of the 80 teams to appear in a First Four game since the opening round was expanded to include four games in 2011, only four have advanced past the tournament’s first week.
UCLA vs. Michigan State matchup
How they got here: UCLA beep, beep, beeped its way into the NCAA tournament, backing in after four consecutive losses in which the Bruins held leads in the final 11 minutes. Michigan State knocked off Illinois and Michigan — both eventual No. 1 seeds — over the season’s final weeks to vastly improve its resume after having been only one game above .500 in mid-February.
Last 10 games: UCLA 4-6; Michigan State 5-5.
Record vs. NCAA tournament teams: UCLA 2-7; Michigan State 4-10.
Best victories/worst losses: UCLA defeated Colorado, 65-62, at Pauley Pavilion in January as part of an 8-0 start in Pac-12 Conference play. UCLA’s worst losses came on the inbounds pass that will live in infamy, ending a 73-72 setback against Stanford, and an 81-73 road loss against Washington State. Michigan State toppled Big Ten Conference champion Illinois at home in late February before edging Michigan at home in the final game of the regular season. The Spartans’ worst loss came against Northwestern in December.
Common opponents: UCLA lost to Ohio State, 77-70, in Indianapolis in December. Michigan State lost to Ohio State, 79-62, on the road in late January but defeated the Buckeyes, 71-67, at home in late February.
UCLA lineup: Starters — G Tyger Campbell (10.5 ppg, 5.6 apg), G Jaime Jaquez Jr. (11.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg), G Jules Bernard (10.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg), G Johnny Juzang (14.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg), F Cody Riley (10.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg). Top reserves — G David Singleton (4.7 ppg, 1.6 rpg), G Jaylen Clark (2.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg), F Mac Etienne (3.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg).
Michigan State lineup: Starters— F Aaron Henry (15.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg), G Joshua Langford (9.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg), F Malik Hall (4.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg), F Julius Marble II (3.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg), G Rocket Watts (7.7 ppg, 2.7 apg). Top reserves — F Joey Hauser (9.7ppg, 5.7 rpg), F Gabe Brown (7.2 ppg, 2.8 rpg), F Marcus Bingham Jr. (3.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg).
It’s a fact: The only other time UCLA entered the NCAA tournament with a 17-9 record, during the 1979-80 season, the Bruins won five consecutive games to reach the championship.
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