TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – It’s March, so naturally Michigan State and UCLA are gearing up for runs in the NCAA tournament.
The tradition-rich programs, which have combined for 26 trips to the Final Four and 13 national titles, meet in the second round of the Southeast region Thursday night, each hoping to salvage seasons marked by inconsistency.
It’s the first ever meeting in the NCAAs between the 10th-seeded Spartans (19-14) and No. 7 seed Bruins (22-10), which is difficult to fathom considering the success they’ve had the past decade-plus on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Michigan State has been to six Final Fours under coach Tom Izzo since 1999, including the past two; UCLA made three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-2008 under Ben Howland.
Both struggled at times this season. Michigan State coped with injuries and playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. UCLA overcame youth and inexperience to surge late to finish second in the Pac-10.
“It’s been a journey this year. … We didn’t sit back and wonder what seed (we were). We sat back and wondered if we were in,” Izzo said. “That’s been different at Michigan State, but it’s also brought some humility to everything, and it’s made you appreciate things a little bit.”
UCLA is coming off a 17-point loss to Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals. The Bruins have lost two of their past three games following a stretch in which they won 12 of 14 to right themselves following a slow start in conference play.
“I think that we’ve come along really great towards the end of the season, defensively especially, and I think that that’s really going to help our team in the tournament,” UCLA junior Jerime Anderson said. “As long as you play defense, you’re going to be in every game. That’s what coach preaches to us, and that’s what we try to portray out there on the floor.”
Returning most of its key players, Michigan State began the season ranked No. 2 but failed to play up to expectations.
Wildly inconsistent following a 5-1 start, the Spartans sputtered in Big Ten play after taking some serious lumps against a tough non-conference schedule. They headed to the Big Ten tournament needing at least one victory to keep their streak of consecutive NCAA bids alive.
They got two, including an 18-point upset of Purdue, before falling to Penn State in the semifinals.
“We’ve been under pressure the whole year. It really mounted in the middle of January because all of a sudden it doesn’t look like we can win the Big Ten, and then it was can we get in the NCAA tournament, and these guys haven’t had a minute to relax,” Izzo said.
“I told them yesterday, you know, that is one thing I have great respect for. A lot of teams kind of go off the deep end and don’t come back. I mean, we’ve survived. We’re like the NCAA tournament. Survive and advance. We’ve survived, and we’re advancing a little bit.”
Howland isn’t discounting what the Spartans are capable of accomplishing now that they’re in the NCAA tournament.
Michigan State is 10-3 in tournament openers under Izzo.
“It’s never easy, and this is especially difficult when you look at what Michigan State has done over the last 12 years,” Howland said. “They’ve been in the Final Four six times and … to be there the past two years is incredible. They’re very much a team that’s got experience in this tournament, led by some guys who are key components to those teams.”
Although Michigan State has six players with Final Four experience, including star guard Kalin Lucas, UCLA has just two players – Anderson and junior Malcolm Lee – who’ve even played in an NCAA tournament game.
Howland said his team’s youth actually could help.
“I think in some ways it’s a good thing. There’s a lot of youthful exuberance and excitement about this tournament,” the coach said. “Our main thing is to just go out and focus on what we try to do night in and night out, which is play real hard and play good defense.”
Izzo, meanwhile, is counting on his team to prove that there’s no substitute for experience at this level.
“We have to play better basketball than we’ve been playing, and yet I think our guys have better basketball in them. That’s been proven in the past,” Izzo said.
“It’s a lot easier to ask guys to do something that they know they’ve done before … compared to asking guys to do something you really don’t know if they’ve done before. That’s our advantage. That’s the one thing we’ve got going for us. I’m going to try to milk it, too.”
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