Two traditional heavyweights will meet Thursday night for the right to join the NCAA Tournament field of 64 as the UCLA Bruins face the Michigan State Spartans. The game will be played on a neutral court at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana, with the Spartans favored by two points.
The Bruins are reeling heading into Thursday’s game, losing four in a row to end the season, including a loss to Oregon State in the Pac-12 Tournament. In fact, it’s likely that four-game losing streak that cost UCLA a guaranteed spot in the field of 64 and forced them to play in the First Four.
Meanwhile, the Spartans are likely in the First Four because they were just 15-12 overall and 9-11 in conference play. Michigan State also lost its first game of the Big Ten Tournament. Of course, Tom Izzo’s teams in the past have been dangerous in the NCAA Tournament regardless of their seed, especially if they can win their first game.
Without a dominant point guard on the roster, the Spartans have relied on point-forward Aaron Henry for most of the season. The 6’6’’ junior is the heartbeat of Michigan State, averaging 15.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. He’s the only player on the roster who averages at least 10 points per game and is also the team leader in both assists and steals.
That being said, the Spartans have a capable supporting cast. Marquette transfer Joey Hauser is a versatile scorer and a nice frontcourt partner for Henry. However, senior guard Joshua Langford is still working his way back after sitting out the entire 2019-20 season after undergoing foot surgery. During the 2018-19 season, Langford scored 15 points per game. Unfortunately for the Spartans, he’s at 9.6 points per game this year and has fallen short of 10 points four times in his last six games, showing few signs of coming around.
Back to the Backcourt
Unlike Michigan State, UCLA has a loaded backcourt that’s led by sophomore Johnny Juzang. The Kentucky transfer is enjoying Westwood a lot more than Lexington, leading the Bruins with 14 points per game. Of course, he’s just one of five UCLA players who average at least 10 points per game, giving the Bruins a balanced attack. Pulling strings on that attack is 5’11’’ sophomore Tyger Campbell, who is up and down as a scorer but dishes out 5.6 assists per game.
However, the Bruins might have a weakness in the frontcourt, where there isn’t much depth or scoring outside of junior forward Cody Riley. Freshman Mac Etienne is starting to play more, but the UCLA frontcourt has been thin with Jalen Hill out of the picture since late January. That makes the Bruins vulnerable against teams with size and puts all of the pressure on the backcourt players to knock down shots and do almost all of the team’s scoring.
Ultimately, this pick comes down to what team can be trusted. Over the last month, Michigan State has three wins over teams that are either a no. 1 or 2 seed. Meanwhile, the Bruins have lost four in a row, failing to look the part of an NCAA Tournament team. Based on that, bet on Michigan State to beat UCLA on Thursday night.
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