NCAA tournament: Michigan State-UCLA matchup gives First Four heavyweight flair

Jason Owens
·4 min read

This isn't a matchup the NCAA had in mind when it expanded the NCAA tournament in 2011. But it will certainly take it.

UCLA and Michigan State both survived the bubble to sneak into the tournament field on Sunday. That provided the NCAA cover to pit the college basketball brand names as the marquee matchup of Thursday's First Four play-in games.

Committee chair explains UCLA-Michigan St. pairing

The NCAA's stance, of course, is that the matchup is strictly a product of the selection committee's seeding process. But even committee chair and Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart couldn't resist joking that the matchup was planned.

"We go through the process of seeding," Barnhart told CBS on Sunday after the bracket reveal. "We scrubbed it multiple times and we get to a spot. Where it is is where it lands, and two teams that we’re thrilled to have in the field. We thought it would be a heck of a way to start the tournament off.

"I say that facetiously. We’re excited to get started. Two great teams and great programs with lots of national championships. It ought to be a lot of fun.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, center, talks to players during a timeout in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State won 64-58. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
Tom Izzo's Spartans caught fired late and look like a dangerous No. 11 seed. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

How to watch the First Four

This year's play-in games will all take place on Thursday as opposed to the regularly scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday schedule of non-COVID seasons. The NCAA is providing an extra time buffer to allow for COVID-19 testing protocols before tipping off the tournament.

The Michigan St.-UCLA matchup is the main event of a four-game First Four Thursday that will start at 5:10 EDT with Mount St. Mary's vs. Texas Southern.

Here's the full schedule and TV lineup for Thursday:

No. 16 Mount St. Mary's vs. No. 16 Texas Southern, 5:10 p.m. EDT, truTV (winner faces No. 1 seed Michigan)

No. 11 Wichita State vs. No. 11 Drake, 6:27 p.m. EDT, TBS (winner faces No. 6 seed USC)

No. 16 Norfolk State vs. No. 16 Appalachian State, 8:40 p.m. EDT, truTV (winner faces No. 1 seed Gonzaga)

No. 11 Michigan State vs. No. 11 UCLA, 9:57 p.m. EDT, TBS (winner faces No. 6 seed BYU)

16 seeds battle to take on Michigan, Gonzaga

The 16-seed matchups pit automatic bid winners of mid-major conference tournaments against each other. The winners of those games will move on to lopsided matchups vs. No. 1 seeds.

They'll carry with them the hope sparked by 2018 UMBC, whose upset of No. 1 seed Virginia was the first and only victory by a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history. Nobody associated with those programs should hold their breath.

Juicy 11-seed matchups

The 11-seed matchups feature the last four at-large teams seeded by the selection committee. Wichita State survived the bubble after being upended by Cincinnati in the AAC tournament semifinals. Drake failed to secure an automatic bid when it lost to Loyola in the MVC title game. Las Vegas is expecting a competitive game with BetMGM listing Wichita State as a slight favorite.

Mick Cronin head coach of the UCLA Bruins while playing the Colorado Buffaloes at UCLA Pauley Pavilion on January 02, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
Mick Cronin has UCLA back in the NCAA tournament in his second year as head coach. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

Bring on the championship programs

The big draw is obviously the night cap featuring 11-time champion UCLA and two-time champion Michigan State.

After its tournament hopes were left for dead, Michigan State finished scorching hot down the stretch with wins over No. 2 Michigan, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Illinois in its final seven games. It was enough to sway the committee to award the Spartans their 23rd straight NCAA tournament bid, trailing only Kansas' 31 as the longest active streak in men's basketball.

The Bruins took the opposite tack, seemingly safely on track for a bid with a 13-4 start only to find themselves on the bubble after losing their final four Pac-12 games. But they survived, and their reward is a matchup against a Spartans team coached by tournament veteran Tom Izzo hitting its stride.

To advance, the Bruins will need a big game from All-Pac-12 first team point guard Tyger Campbell and leading scorer Johnny Juzang. Michigan State will lean on junior forward Aaron Henry, a second-round draft prospect and the best bet of either team to land in the NBA.

Vegas gives a small edge to the Spartans.

No, this won't be vintage UCLA and Michigan State. That's why they're meeting in a play-in game. But after a season completely void of an NCAA tournament, Thursday's matchup will be a welcome sight for thirsty college basketball fans.

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