Two of the most storied programs in NCAA Tournament history take center stage Thursday in Southeast Regional action from the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa as the seventh-seeded UCLA Bruins battle the No. 10 seed Michigan State Spartans in their first-ever postseason meeting.
UCLA is making its 44th appearance at the Big Dance in 2011 searching for a staggering 100th win in tournament play. The Bruins' winning percentage in the NCAAs (.733) is second only to Duke (.758) and trails only North Carolina (102) and Kentucky (101) for wins at this event with a record-11 National Championships and 18 Final Four appearances -- most recently making a three- year run in the Final Four from 2006-08. UCLA's 22-10 record this year is a bit deceptive, with all 10 of its losses coming against postseason clubs -- seven of those to NCAA Tournament teams in Villanova, Virginia Commonwealth, Kansas, Washington (twice), USC and Arizona. On the flip side, the Bruins also beat Arizona and USC in Pac-10 play along with BYU and St. John's. The Bruins amassed a 13-5 record in conference play overall, and entered the Pac-10 tourney as the two seed, but were bounced by Oregon (76-59) in the quarterfinals.
Michigan State enters into its 14th consecutive NCAA Tournament this year, the third longest active streak in the country behind Kansas (22) and Duke (16). This will be the Spartans' 25th appearance here overall, carrying a 52-23 ledger into Thursday's action. MSU has a tough act to follow coming off back- to-back Final Four appearances. Michigan State was dealt a rare seventh seed for this year's Big Ten Tournament, just the third time in the history of the event head coach Tom Izzo's bunch has had to take part in the first round. MSU was a mainstay in the national rankings early in the year before a tough stretch of five losses in six games dropped them out for good. They did however, manage a pair of wins over Iowa (66-61) and a second-seeded Purdue team (74-56) in the tourney before bowing out to Penn State in the semifinals, 61-48.
Not only have these two teams never met in the NCAA Tournament, they have played just three times in the last 50 years -- the last, a heavyweight battle coming during the 2007 CBE Classic in a 68-63 victory for the second-ranked Bruins over No. 10 MSU. UCLA leads the all-time series, 5-2.
Despite the Spartans' struggles late in the season they remain a talented team and always seem to find ways to make waves in the postseason. Senior Kalin Lucas was part of the frustrating season in directing an offense that ranked seventh in the conference (68.5 ppg), dead last in field-goal percentage (43.2) and second-to-last in turnover margin (minus-1.30). The Spartans' struggles weren't limited to offense, placing seventh in the Big Ten in giving up 66.2 points per game, while finishing eighth in free-throw percentage (69.9). Lucas' 17.2 ppg paced the club nonetheless and Draymond Green put up 12.3 points and team-highs of 8.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists. He also topped the roster with 56 steals and 38 blocks. Lucas dished 3.3 assists per game. Durrell Summers gives MSU a trio of double-figure scorers with an 11.5-point average and was the team's top three-point threat with 60 on 35.7 percent shooting. The Spartans enjoyed their biggest advantage in the rebounding game, securing 37.0 caroms per contest to place second in the conference with the league's third-best margin (plus-4.2). Green's 8.6 rpg ranked third in the Big Ten, with the junior also coming in second among league competitors in steals.
The Bruins have four players averaging in double-figure scoring, a balanced attack that nets 70.0 points per game -- good for fifth in the Pac-10. A 45.6 shooting percentage and 68.3 free-throw percentage are also middle of the road for the conference (fifth place), while the defense does its part in yielding 65.8 ppg to rank third in the league. Sophomore Reeves Nelson heads the attack at 13.9 points per game and adds a team-leading 9.0 rebounds that ranks third in-conference. His 57.4 shooting percentage stands fifth in the Pac-10. Malcolm Lee checks in at 13.0 ppg while the versatile sophomore Tyler Honeycutt averages 12.6 points per contest, 7.4 rebounds and leads the club in both blocks (61) and three-pointers (49). Joshua Smith plays significant minutes to post 10.6 ppg and 6.5 boards and Lazeric Jones adds 9.4 ppg to the mix. The Bruins are the conference's top rebounding team with a plus-4.7 margin at 37.3 per game but also hold the league's worst turnover margin at minus-2.84.
As often is the case with 7-10 matchups, it seems this one could go either way. The Spartans' struggles are well noted but they have also demonstrated an ability to shake loose of the doldrums and come through in stretches. The NCAA Tournament leaves you little time to figure things out though, and UCLA has shown more promise over a longer stretch, pointing to a Bruin win in the second round.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: UCLA 69, Michigan State 64