UCLA has received a 7-seed in the Southeast bracket. They will travel to Tampa to face the 10 seed Michigan State Spartans in the first round, and if they advance will take on 2-seed Florida.
All things considered, this is a pretty generous assignment. The Bruins knew they were going to be between a 7 and a 10 seed, so getting a 7-seed was pretty much the best possible option. In addition, they knew since they were in the 7-through-10 range they were going to have to face a 1-seed or a 2-seed in the Round of 32 if they wanted to advance….and they were put in the bracket with the worst 2-seed (many people didn’t think Florida didn’t deserve to be seeded that high, especially coming off a 16 point loss to Kentucky in the SEC championship). In addition, 10-seed Michigan State was a bubble team that was far from a lock to make the tournament.
Whether the Bruins can take advantage of these favorable circumstances, however, is an entirely different story. As we’ve seen throughout the season, UCLA can beat the best teams they face (BYU, Arizona, St. Johns) or lose to the worst ones (Montana, getting blown out by Oregon). Some analysts are predicting the Bruins to beat Florida and move to the Sweet 16 (Kenny Smith even has UCLA moving on to the Elite 8, although in all fairness it doesn’t really seem like he follows college ball that much and no one was sure why he and Charles Barkley were analysts on the selection show) but it’s also highly possible that UCLA will lay an egg against MSU and get beat by 15 in the first round.
Although MSU was considered a bubble team, it will be anything but a walk in the park for the Bruins in the first round. After all, the Spartans made the Final Four last year and had a pre-season ranking of number 2 in the nation before struggling, so they have the talent to play above their heads. They have one elite player –guard Kalin Lucas, who most of their offense flows around. In fact, many analysts have described this MSU team as “Kalin Lucas and some other dudes.” Malcolm Lee will most likely be given the defensive assignment on Lucas for most of the game, and his defense will likely be the key factor in the game for the bruins. In terms of common opponents, MSU beat Washington earlier this year, who UCLA lost to twice. (although in all fairness, at that point MSU still had guard Korie Lucious, who was suspended and then transferred partway through the season). One good thing about the matchup, however, is that the Bruins seem to play better against big name schools. Even though MSU was a bubble team, they are still a high profile and historic major conference team, so UCLA probably won’t overlook them like they did Montana and Oregon. Had UCLA been matched up against a mid-major like Richmond or Old Dominion they may have rested on their laurels and underestimated their opponent.
One advantage that UCLA was likely counting on is the fact that the frontcourt play of Reeves Nelson and Joshua Smith is such a matchup nightmare for many teams. Pac-10 teams eventually figured out how to deal with them as the season went on, but most teams have huge problems dealing with that frontcourt when they encounter it (which is part of why UCLA was able to surprise out-of-conference teams like BYU and St. Johns). While MSU’s frontcourt play is not fantastic, this advantage is still likely mitigated by the fact that Tom Izzo is one of the best coaches in the nation and will have more than enough time to figure out how to deal with it even though his team is somewhat lacking overall talent. Had UCLA been matched up against a 10-seed that had a mediocre coach, the frontcourt advantage would have likely been enough to push the Bruins through.
The biggest disadvantage, however, is the time zone change. UCLA wasn’t exactly fantastic on the road, with all of their major victories came in the friendly confines of southern California and losing both games in New York City during the preseason NIT. Their one-point loss to eventual one-seed Kansas was the only decent game the Bruins have played all year outside the Pacific timezone. Michigan State will be staying in the Eastern Timezone, and I feel like that will likely be enough to propel them to a victory.
All things considered, my prediction is that UCLA will likely fall to MSU in the first round. As strange as this sounds, however, if they are able to get past the Spartans, I like their chances against Florida in round two. (I know it sounds bizarre that I’m more confident in their chances against a 2-seed than a 10-seed, but its consistent with UCLA’s performance this season).
About the Author
Written by Josh Lehmer
2009 UCLA graduate. Worked at NBC-Los Angeles from 2008-2009, then as ESPN Production Assistant. Fan of the UCLA Bruins, Lakers, Angels, Ducks.