When asked how he prepares for a team that has proven that it can be so good, but also so bad, Spartans head coach Tom Izzo just laughed and gestured wildly.
"I would've liked to have been in this room when you asked (UCLA head coach Ben Howland) that question about us," said Izzo, who has guided Michigan State to two-straight Final Fours and six overall. "What you have here are two misfits. We both had our issues. But you always prepare like it's for their best, because once they've done something, that's what they're capable of doing on any given night."
While Vegas, Patroclus' look at the numbers, and many experts are picking the Spartans, you have to have the feeling that if the Bruins do what they are capable of doing they are going to win.
These are similar teams who are defense first and run when the opportunity presents itself. This Bruin team has improved so much over the course of the year on defense and they have realized what CBH preaches is the way to advance:
"I think that we've come along really great towards the end of the season, defensively especially, and I think that that's really going to help our team in the tournament," UCLA junior Jerime Anderson said. "As long as you play defense, you're going to be in every game. That's what coach preaches to us, and that's what we try to portray out there on the floor."
CBH likes his team youthful exuberance and thinks it could help.
"I think in some ways it's a good thing. There's a lot of youthful exuberance and excitement about this tournament," the coach said. "Our main thing is to just go out and focus on what we try to do night in and night out, which is play real hard and play good defense."
While Izzo is hyping his team's experience, maybe because its the best thing he's got (emphasis mine):
Izzo, meanwhile, is counting on his team to prove that there's no substitute for experience at this level."We have to play better basketball than we've been playing, and yet I think our guys have better basketball in them.
That's been proven in the past," Izzo said."It's a lot easier to ask guys to do something that they know they've done before ... compared to asking guys to do something you really don't know if they've done before. That's our advantage. That's the one thing we've got going for us. I'm going to try to milk it, too."
Onto the match-ups after the jump.
POINT\LEAD GUARD: Will Lee Add Another Notch to his Belt?
The marquee match will be Kalin Lucas being covered (at least some of the time) by Malcolm Lee. Lucas plays point guard some of the time but he is one of those sort of lead guards. Regardless of what he plays he is the hot player right now for the Spartans.
Senior guard Kalin Lucas comes into the tournament playing some of the best basketball of his four-year career at MSU. Averaging more than 20 points in the last 14 games, Lucas has been a force as he finishes his career.
The list of players that Lee has shut down is long and include point/lead guards from Jimmer Fredette to Isaiah Thomas. The latter is important as it should not be forgotten that Thomas did not score until 3:35 left in the last game at Washington when UCLA was pressing.
The only question is Lee's health. He was held out for precautionary reasons during the meaningless shootaround yesterday and this may be as much an issue mentally as well as physically. By that I mean, Lee held himself back in the Oregon game.
He needs to forget the injury and go all out. It would be a tragic irony if Lee, the one Bruin whose effort level has been great all year, is the one not going all out. I am cautiously optimistic the captain will be a good leader again and put aside his knee issues.
OFF GUARD: Watch the Bench
Mike Kebler starts and he averages 1.6 PPG. Yes, 1.6. The Spartans had some issues with players getting kicked off, leaving etc. and Kebler is the feel good senior starter. Obviously, this is an easy match-up on defense but freshman Keith Appling plays as many minutes and he is a 40% shooter from downtown (where he takes most of his shots). Appling is the future PG for the Spartans and he will likely play more or at least as much as Kebler. He makes too many TOs but is a threat from three. UCLA should have an advantage here but Anderson/Jones can't relax on Appling outside.
Which actually might be the story here, at least part of the time. How does Anderson play for the hurting Jones? Ironically UCLA has the experience advantage in this battle of the two most important backups.
CENTER: Josh Smith vs. The Committee
Adrian Payne starts at center for the Spartans but Garrick Sherman, Delvon Roe and Derrick Nix will also play some in the pivot. But the big news is Smith may finally start since there are no SPTRs setting the tone early:
"We need to get him going right away," Howland said. "I mean Josh is always a key for us and at some point here's he's got to learn how to start the game without getting in foul trouble. And I think he's pretty close to that point."
I am excited about this because some of our bad starts IMO are due in part to thinking too much outside early and taking a while to remember that we want to get the ball to Josh and, to a lesser extent, Reeves. The referees will play a role for Josh still though and he has to keep a couple things in mind. If they "let them play" Josh had better finish strong as they are not going to call as many fouls on the players on him. If they call it close, Josh has hopefully learned what not to do (reach, get too far out on the floor, etc.) and will be able to take advantage of this.
The Spartans center-by-committee is still good for Josh as they are not the type who can go outside like Joevan Catron of Oregon, who gave Josh trouble this year. Their best might be Nix, a big guy (but not as big as Josh) that caused Izzo to joke:
Hopefully, the floor won't tilt. Nix is listed at 6-9, 270, but he weighs considerably more. Smith is listed at 6-10, 305.
"If those two get in the key, there better be some reinforcements in the key," Izzo said.
This matchup is a huge advantage for UCLA and should be the most important on offense. Hopefully the Bruins remember that and starting Josh would certianly help.
WING SPOT: The X Factor
Yesterday the fishwrap wrote a story entitled "Tyler Honeycutt will show how he much he cares" which was a response of sorts to Tyler's critics.
Honeycutt acknowledged last week that he was part of a "too cool" attitude that plagued the Bruins during an upset loss to Oregon in the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament.
Yet, Honeycutt realizes nothing is more hip than winning, particularly as seventh-seeded UCLA (22-10) prepares to open the NCAA tournament on Thursday in Tampa against 10th-seeded Michigan State (19-14) in a Southeast Regional second-round game.
"That's what I play for," he said. "I will give up those 30 points in Kansas to get a win."
That may be put to a test. Honeycutt who is fighting strep throat is matched up with maybe the scariest player on the Spartan team. The wildcard Durrell Summers:
"Summers is very capable of going crazy," Howland said in a news conference earlier this week. "We've got to make sure he doesn't."
Summers has been mired in a dreadful senior-year slump after averaging 18.8 points in five NCAA tournament games last year. But in his past four games, he has shown possible signs of coming out of it a bit by going 6 of 18 on 3-pointers (33.3 percent).
The good news is Summers likes to shoot threes and takes half his shots from there. Honeycutt has had problems with guys who go to the rack and that is not Summers specialty.
So it likely won't matter if Honeycutt scores 30 tomorrow but UCLA will definitely lose if Summers does.
THE POWER FORWARD: Reeves Nelson vs. A Point Forward
Draymond Green leads the Spartans in rebounds AND assists. He is a very good passer and a good three shooter. Ironically he is not good shooting from 2 and has disappeared some games. He is a good defender. He is a bit undersized.
Reeves and Green have a lot in common but there are differences. Reeves is the better finisher and unlike Green mostly takes good shoots but obviously not as good outside or as a point forward (although occasionally he tries to be). That may be the key in this match-up. Does Nelson play within himself as a PF and bring it on defense? In the mirror opposite does Green take bad shots or disappear on offense? This match-up may be the most even. However, Reeves has been awesome in a number of big games and tonight would obviously be the best time to bring it.
The Bruins are underdogs by most of the experts and the services, they have some health issues, but there really is some reason for cautious optimism. UCLA has come a long way this season, especially on the defensive side, which will serve them well tonight.
The last thought goes to the leader of one of those final four runs, AA himself, who recently said of Ben Howland (emphasis mine):
"He puts in so much time and effort into preparing for every detail that an opponent can throw at you that you feel like you know what they are going to do before you step on the court," Afflalo said. "He's a great defensive mind and once players truly understand that, they begin to have success as a team."
Here's hoping the Bruins ignore the critics, the odds-makers, and the experts and listen to the one voice that matters right now, Ben Howland.