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NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament: Michigan State vs. UCLA preview

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NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Maryland Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info/How to Watch:

Where: Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Indiana

When: Thursday, March 15, 2021 at 9:57 p.m. ET

TV/Streaming [within the US]: TBS/Paramount plus (free trial) or Sling TV

Michigan State (15-12, 9-11): No. 56 (Kenpom)

Depth Chart:

1 - Rocket Watts (6’2” so), AJ Hoggard (6’3” fr), Jack Hoiberg (5’11” jr)
2 - Joshua Langford (6’5” sr)
3 - Aaron Henry (6’6” jr), Gabe Brown (6’8” jr)
4 - Malik Hall (6’7” so), Joey Hauser (6’9” jr), Thomas Kithier (6’9” jr)
5 - Julius Marble (6’8” so), Marcus Bingham Jr. (6’11” jr), Mady Sissoko (6’9” fr)

- NCAA Tournament self-scout -

After a tumultuous closing stretch to the regular season and conference tournament that saw the Spartans play eight games in 20 days, winning some very difficult and important contests — including top-5 wins over Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan — the Spartans find themselves in the First Four play-in game for the 11-seed in the East Region.

A subpar season by Tom Izzo’s standards, Michigan State has struggled for consistency all season, particularly on the offensive end of the court. Much of the Spartans’ offensive struggles stem from the somewhat halting development of the team’s two point guards. Sophomore Mark “Rocket” Watts, who has struggled in what was anticipated to be a starring turn, has slowly begun to turn the corner on the offensive end, while still struggling at times to defend the point of attack. Freshman A.J. Hoggard’s stout defense and ability to get into the lane has often been undone by his turnovers, poor shooting and finishing, and his occasionally waning focus on defense.

Lacking the steady play of the now-departed Cassius Winston at the point guard, Izzo’s team has relied upon veteran wings Joshua Langford (graduate senior), Aaron Henry (junior), and Gabe Brown (junior) to steady the team, provide consistent production, and to organize the offense and defense. While Aaron Henry has become one of the stand-out players of the Big Ten (earning all-defensive team, and third-team all-conference honors), Joshua Langford and Gabe Brown have both struggled for consistency. Langford in his long-awaited return from a two-year layoff with foot injuries has battled and not been shy all season, but his formerly consistent shooting has not fully returned this season — not surprising given his two years away from playing basketball. The brutal end-of-season stretch took a lot out of Langford’s legs, and the rest preceding the NCAA-tournament will undoubtedly help Langford considerably. Brown, in his own right, has had his typical offensive flashes — he leads the team in three-point percentage, but his defense and rebounding work have only slowly begun to rebound from his bout with COVID-19 (which led the team to pause activities in the middle of conference play).

In the front-court, Tom Izzo and the Spartans’ staff have struggled to get consistent play out of their bigs: highly anticipated junior transfer Joey Hauser has struggled defensively, but has recently re-located his offensive mojo in a bench-role; promising sophomore Malik Hall had his terrific season interrupted by the COVID-pause, and has only begun to play at his typical level in the past few games after a long funk in conference play; sophomore Julius Marble has had flashes of good offensive and defensive play, but has struggled with foul-problems and defensive footwork; junior Marcus Bingham Jr. has been clearly the most impactful defender on the team, but has had his minutes limited due to amorphous frustrations from the coaches; and freshman Mady Sissoko and junior Thomas Kithier have had inconsistent roles based on matchups.

Most importantly, the Spartans appear to have figured out their best lineups down the stretch of the season — a constant source of frustration until late February. Henry, the dominant force on the team, and Bingham Jr., the defensive destroyer in the paint, make the team “go.” Izzo has begun to vacillate between smaller lineups to rest Bingham Jr. and to maximize Hauser’s offensive potential — lineups that often include Watts, Langford, and Brown or Hall — and bigger lineups, with Bingham Jr. or one of the other centers, that require spacing and ball-movement to avoid quiet offensive stretches.

This team is at its worst when Watts and Langford are inefficient or waste offensive possessions with over-dribbling, and at its best when Henry leads a balanced offense and stifling defense anchored by Bingham Jr. A team lacking Izzo’s habitual offensive crispness, the Spartans chief focus in the NCAA tournament must be on generating quality looks for Henry whose probing, scoring, and passing should guide each offensive possession that he is on the court.

UCLA (17-9, 13-6): No. 44 (Kenpom)

Depth Chart:

1 - Tyger Campbell (5’11” so)
2 - Johnny Juzang (6’6” so), David Singleton (6’4” jr), Jaylen Clark (6’5” fr)
3 - Jules Bernard (6’6” jr), Jake Kyman (6’6” so)
4 - Jaime Jaquez (6’6” so)
5 - Cody Riley (6’9” jr), Mac Etienne (6’9” fr)

Scout:

UCLA’s season got up-ended when star wing Chris Smith tore his ACL eight games into the season, and was further disrupted when Jalen Hill had to step away from the team for personal reasons. Lacking those two talents, UCLA’s team has become all the more focused on its balanced and equal-opportunity offense. The Bruins have five players who use between 20 and 25 percent of the possessions when they are on the court, with Juzang and Riley — UCLA’s most important big-man — serving as the two primary offensive players.

Tyger Campbell, a former Izzo recruiting target, orchestrates everything with his deft passing, excellent communication, and delightful pace-control. UCLA spaces the court, often playing with no true big, and boasts five competent-to-excellent three-point shooters in Singleton (46 percent), Bernard (40.5 percent), Jaquez (37.8 percent), Juzang (34.5 percent), and Kyman (32.6 percent). Expect all five of these players to hoist between three to five three-point attempts.

Despite UCLA’s competence from long-range, this is a Mick Cronin team, which means that the Bruins will not simply hoist three-pointers — UCLA plays slow (No. 332 in the nation in terms of pace of play), they hunt matchups, they move the ball, do not turn it over, and are very comfortable in the mid-range and attacking the rim off of the bounce when the matchup allows. Jaquez, in particular, looks like the best NBA prospect on the team, with a three-level scoring game and the ability to hurt bigger and smaller players alike. When Riley or recently-arrived freshman Mac Etienne (who will be a terrific player in another year or so) are not on the court, it is Jaquez who generally becomes the de facto center.

Film Study:

Up by 10 at the half, in its last game, against Oregon State in the Pac-12 conference tournament, UCLA managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Juzang struggled shooting the ball under duress from good wing defense, Jaquez fouled out, and UCLA gave up a ton of points in the paint and at the line as their defense crumbled in the second half and overtime.

At their best, the Bruins methodically punish teams inside the arc, expose matchups, and win the glass despite their size limitations. Here, against Arizona, UCLA demonstrates all three facets of their brand of winning ball. This victory was one of three wins against top-50 teams in Kenpom’s ratings that UCLA enjoyed this season (the others were the road trip to Arizona, and their home win over Colorado).

For comparison’s sake, Michigan State enjoyed eight victories over top-50 teams in Kenpom’s ratings, and, as a reminder, here is what the Spartans can look like at their best:

Watts in a groove, Henry playing his game, timely contributions from Langford, Hauser, and Brown, and Bingham Jr. disrupting the opposing team in the paint.

Game plan:

UCLA will try to play the Spartan bigs off the court with dribble-drives and aggressive attacks of the rim. If the Spartan bigs are off the court, then UCLA will feel good about Campbell and the wings hunting matchups (particularly Watts, Hoggard, and Hauser) and repeatedly punishing the individual defensive mistakes that those defenders can suffer.

Michigan State will seek to dominate the paint on both ends of the court. Controlling the glass, blocking shots, driving the ball and using two-footed jump-stops and pump-fakes to unsettle the shaky UCLA defense. If Hauser, Bingham Jr., and Hall can have strong defensive outings, then the Spartans should feel confident in their chances, given Henry, Langford, and Brown’s ability to effectively match-up against the UCLA wings. While Watts and Hoggard will be under constant pressure from Campbell — he is not a natural scorer, reaching double-figures in less than half of the Bruins’ games. If Watts and Hoggard can, in their own rights, put pressure on Campbell when he is on the defensive end, then that will pay significant dividends as the UCLA point guard has begun to wear-down a bit over the back end of the season.

These teams are diametrically opposed in the advanced stats — UCLA the No. 26 offense in the country and No. 86 defense, and Michigan State the No. 98 offense and No. 32 defense in the country. But where the Spartans have faced a brutal schedule (No. 8 in the nation in strength of schedule), the Bruins have faced a far weaker conference (they boast the No. 55 strength of schedule in the country — all ratings & rankings per Kenpom.com). Furthermore, while the Spartans have begun to percolate in the last 20 days of the season, the Bruins appear to be fading having lost four games in a row.

Prediction:

This game is winnable for both teams — they are fighting for an 11-seed after all — but the matchups do not bode as well for UCLA as they do for Michigan State. Malik Hall and Joey Hauser have defended better of late, and adding Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry to the mix gives the Spartans four players to throw at Jaime Jaquez. Watts and Hoggard will be under pressure, but Campbell’s comfort-zone is in facilitating not dominating as a scorer. Finally, the Spartans have faced a real ringer of big-men this season, and the prospect of battling with the talented and strong, but limited, Cody Riley and Mac Etienne must seem like an early-tournament vacation compared to the likes of Hunter Dickinson, Luka Garza, Kofi Cockburn, and Trevion Williams (among others) in the Big Ten.

Most importantly for Michigan State, the Spartans offensive efficiency has struggled all year precisely because of how incredibly, historically, good the Big Ten conference is defensively. Every single team in the Big Ten has a defensive rating better than or equal to No. 51 in the nation (other than Ohio State at No. 79 — still better than UCLA’s), so facing a defense that is as comparatively porous as UCLA’s will feel like a walk in the park in some ways. This is not to denigrate UCLA’s defense, but if your defensive efficiency is considerably worse than Iowa’s, then you have some soul-searching to do.

I expect Aaron Henry to put up a comprehensive performance, and for Marcus Bingham Jr. and Malik Hall to contribute stalwart defense. If Izzo gives Gabe Brown and Bingham Jr. enough minutes, then UCLA will find themselves frustrated and beleaguered after 30 minutes. Joey Hauser’s interior scoring will put the nail in the coffin of this one.

MSU 75 UCLA 68

Players play. Tough players win.

GO GREEN!!!

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