After the first year without an NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament since its debut in 1939, March Madness returns in 2021 with a 23-day sprint from the First Four through the national championship on April 5. This year’s tournament will be distinct from its predecessors in a variety of ways, especially with its limited fan capacity and its centralized location in various venues in and around Indianapolis -- as opposed to its national reach of previous years.
And with the First Four kicking off the action, UCLA and Michigan State meet as 11-seeds coming off losses in their only games of the Big Ten Tournament and Pac-12 Tournament, respectively. They’ll square off for the 11th time since 1950 — and for the first time in the NCAA Tournament since 2011 — with the winner slated to take on East Region No. 6-seeded BYU in the First Round on Saturday.
First Four: No. 11 UCLA Bruins (17-9) vs. No. 11 Michigan State Spartans (15-12)
Time: Thursday, March 18 at approximately 9:57 p.m. ET
Where: Mackey Arena (West Lafayette, Ind.)
Spread: Michigan State -2.0
Keys for UCLA
UCLA is hoping that this year's Tournament isn’t a carbon copy of its most recent berth. In the 2018 NCAA Tournament, the Bruins likewise entered as an 11-seed and were slotted into the First Four, in which UCLA fell 65-58 to St. Bonaventure. In fact, of the Bruins’ last five NCAA Tournament appearances, three (2015, 2018, 2021) have come as an 11-seed while the other two (2014, 2017) have been as a 4-seed and 3-seed, respectively.
Mick Cronin’s first NCAA Tournament berth with the Bruins comes on the heels of his selection as the Pac-12’s coach of the year a season ago after nine straight tournament appearances with Cincinnati. Only three of those years — and none since 2015 — saw the Bearcats advance past the first weekend, however, a trend that the Bruins will aim to reverse in their first NCAA Tournament with Cronin at the helm. One key backbone of the Bruins’ success this season was their ability to control the ball, finishing in the top 50 nationally in turnovers committed (11.2) per game. Redshirt sophomore guard Tyger Campbell was a major focal point of UCLA’s offense this season, tallying top-25 marks across Division I with a 2.79 assist-to-turnover ratio (20th) and 5.6 assists per game (24th), good enough for second in the Pac-12 in both measures.
Keys for Michigan State
Even with the understanding that this season was a roller-coaster to endure, the 2020-21 campaign was definitely an underperformance by Michigan State’s standards. Its .556 win percentage was its worst in 32 seasons, as the Spartans hadn’t won a smaller share of their games since 1988-89 (.545). And with 23 straight NCAA Tournament appearances — every year since 1998 (last year aside) — the squad’s 11-seed in this year’s tournament marks its lowest in that span. That said, this is still a group hungry for revenge after opening its season with six straight wins and five of its 12 Big Ten losses coming by 10 or fewer points.
There weren’t many standouts from this year's Michigan State team, but junior forward Aaron Henry was as close to a do-it-all player for head coach Tom Izzo as there could be. Henry led the team in virtually every category — minutes, scoring, assists and steals, just to name a few. He fell short in rebounds and blocks… where he finished second in both, with just one fewer rebound than Joey Hauser (154) and one fewer block than Marcus Bingham Jr. (36). If Michigan State is able to make it out of the First Four and make any noise in the Round of 64 and beyond, Henry will likely be a key reason why.
These two storied programs aren't that familiar with the First Four, as this will be UCLA’s second appearance (first in 2018) and the first for Michigan State. The Spartans haven’t had much success as of late in West Lafayette, with five straight losses and nine losses in their last 13 games at Mackey Arena.
Prediction: UCLA 74, Michigan State 67
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.