Posted on March 18, 2021
But after one full rotation around the sun, the Big Dance has returned—albeit in a bubble in the State of Indiana—and there’s no need to reminisce about what could have been.
We are here and now.
And after stumbling in its final four games of the season, UCLA must face the inconsistent Michigan State Spartans in the Play-In game on Thursday.
If you haven’t lived in Big Ten country, the old adage of MSU basketball goes something like this: When Tom Izzo’s team has a good year, they underperform in the Tournament, but when they have a bad year, watch out in March.
Mick Cronin will be tasked with carrying the Pac-12’s reputation in the matchup, as a victory could be a bellwether for the Conference’s success over the next few weeks.
But on Friday, the Cinderella Beavers look to continue their run against the 5-seed Tennessee Volunteers. The battle with the SEC opponent presents an overlooked opportunity for the Conference of Champions to make a statement.
I preview both of those games here.
As always, my picks, along with Nick Bartlett’s, Stephen Vilardo’s, and Anthony Gharib’s appear below their respective games.
No. 11 UCLA v. No. 11 Michigan State
Thursday, March 18th
6:57pm PT, TBS
Having taken down Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio State over the past month, Tom Izzo and the Spartans squeaked into the NCAA Tournament by the skin of their teeth.
At 15-12, the Selection Committee may have thrown MSU a bone, and you have to wonder if they would have shown similar deference to a Pac-12 team. The answer isn’t hard to imagine.
Yet, the Committee must have viewed the Bruins in a similar light.
The brand recognition that UCLA basketball brings to the table is undeniable, and the eyes drawn to this matchup could be the highest of any Play-In Game to date.
It’s possible that the NCAA took that into consideration when finalizing the brackets, but putting Mick Cronin’s team as one of the Last Four In is a slap in the face to the Pac-12.
But the perception of the league that’s held by three-quarters of the country could be confirmed if the Bruins don’t get it done.
Michigan State is a strong rebounding team that’s elite at blocking shots, and shares the ball among the best in the nation. But the Spartans’ weaknesses are beyond the arc, and they don’t take care of the rock.
It’s a matchup that favors UCLA.
Cronin’s team has taken a step back on the defensive side of the court this season, arguably due to the loss of Chris Smith, but remains among the best three-point shooting programs in Division I basketball. The Bruins also limit turnovers at one of the highest clips in the NCAA.
When it comes down to it, this is a matchup of a strong defense against a potent offense. If UCLA shoots well from the field and takes care of the ball, it likely carries the Conference’s torch in what is easily the biggest game of the day.
Slowing down MSU’s Aaron Henry is arguably the key, as the junior forward is the only Spartan player averaging in double-figures.
With no true star player to worry about, Cronin just needs his team to play Bruin basketball.
No. 12 Oregon State v. No. 5 Tennessee
Round of 64
Friday, March 19th
1:30pm PT, TNT
If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that the Tennessee fans have already penciled in a “W” for this game.
Is there anything worse than the obnoxious “SEC” chants that the fans of the football-centric conference shout whenever their media-darling teams win a game everyone already expected them to handle?
For a league that presumes the rest of the nation should kneel before their supposed excellence, outside of Florida and Kentucky, it hasn’t had much success in basketball.
In that sense, the name on the front of the jersey isn’t going to worry Wayne Tinkle’s team.
And if you’re the Volunteers, you probably should be concerned about this matchup.
The Beavers are arguably the hottest team in the country coming into the Big Dance, and there’s nothing more dangerous than a unit playing for each other. Teams holding the belief that OSU currently possess typically are the ones that make tournament runs.
But mentally preparing the players for the task at hand falls entirely on Tinkle.
Is Oregon State just happy to be here, complacent with a First Round loss? Or hungry for a run to the Sweet 16?
Only the latter will give the Beavs a chance against Tennessee.
And on paper, there aren’t any striking statistical differences between the two programs, other than UT’s ability to block shots. Apart from that, the glaring rebounding problem that OSU has dealt with all season remains, but the matchup is relatively even.
Of course, the national media will have you believe that the balance on paper is misleading because the Pac-12 is weak and the SEC is a much stronger league. They will point to Oregon State’s tournament title as nothing more than a sign that the Conference of Champions doesn’t have a team that can advance beyond the first weekend.
For Tinkle and Oregon State, all that noise is par for the course.
It’s motivated the Beavers since they were picked to finish last in the Conference, and adds fuel for the fire on Friday.
But facing a team with seven players that average roughly the same amount of points and minutes per game, it’s going to be a tough task to pull out the victory.
Just the way OSU wants it.
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