The road to banner #12 just got one game shorter.
The Bruins barely squeak by Michigan State in the
first second round of the NCAA tournament by a 78-76 score, setting up yet another rematch with Florida.
And if today was any indication, we are also going to be big underdogs. The Bruins have defined themselves this season by their consistent inconsistency. One good half, one bad half, and tonight was no different.
UCLA came out of the gates red hot, especially on the defensive end, where their movement, rotations, and help defense reminded us of Ben Ball Warrior teams of old. Michigan State did not look ready for the intensity that the Bruins brought out of the locker room. Perhaps they had a lot of stored up energy after the stinker they laid against Oregon in the Pac 10 Tournament, but whatever it was, it was working. The defensive intensity showed up and down the roster, including substitutes Tyler Lamb and Brendan Lane. Like in years past, the defense fed the offense and the Bruins unleashed a balanced scoring attack on the Spartans, mostly by pounding the ball inside to Smith while letting Tyler Honeycutt handle matters on the perimeter and Reeves Nelson cleaning up on the inside as usual. Going into the locker room up by 18 points, it looked like it was time to plan for the Florida rematch
Unless, of course, you've watched us play this year.
Surely the team that just held the Spartans to 24 points would be able to play just average defense and bleed the second half dry, right? Again, that's a stupid question to those of us that have seen this team play. Tom Izzo's boys came out of the locker room with a different defense, and essentially turned the tables on the Bruins. The full court pressure utilized by the Spartans clearly got to all of our ball handlers, as we began to initiate our offense 10 feet further back, with obvious (poor) results. No player was bothered more by the pressure than Lazeric Jones, who in his injured state had a nightmare of a game, especially in the second half. Michigan State rolled off a quick run at the start of the second half, but an offensive surge by Joshua Smith appeared to keep the Spartans at bay as the Bruins turned back the Spartan charge and expanded the lead to 23 points midway through the second half.
Now it was time for Bruin fans to exhale and start thinking about Florida...right?
Michigan State began to hit meaningless three after meaningless three with little to no rebounding to be found for the Bruins, until those meaningless threes stopped being so meaningless. As the game tightened to three possessions, then two, MSU looked to do what they could to stop the clock and they sent UCLA to the free throw line...where they promptly went 2-10 down the stretch. With the threes continuing to drop for the Spartans, UCLA's rock all season, Malcolm Lee, stepped to the line for two shots and made the first then possibly intentionally missed the second. Kalen Lucas traveled after receiving the outlet pass and the Bruins finally had themselves the NCAA Tournament victory they thought they had sealed up with 10 minutes to play.
The motto of March is "Survive and Advance". Surely it's the result we all wanted, but leave it to this team to get its fans upset even with a tournament win. Perhaps the best way to describe it is frustration. This team was able to show us both its potential and its ceiling all in the same game. The team that D's up on every possession and locks its opponent down is capable of playing with any team in the tournament. The one that lays on screens, gives up offensive rebounds, and throws the ball away with reckless abandon is ripe to get stomped by any of the remaining teams in the field.
This isn't to detract from the breakout debut of Smith, who was absolutely dominant inside on both ends of the floor, nor does it discount the incredible job Malcolm Lee did on Kalen Lucas, who shot 4-15 and had 5 turnovers. Brendan Lane had a surprising offensive outburst and Tyler Lamb played well in his minutes. But you had to think that CBH nearly gave this one away with his refusal to pull Zeek for Jerime Anderson when Zeek was clearly struggling big time on both ends of the floor. For the final 10 minutes, the Bruins were playing virtually 4 on 5.
So obviously my title, mentioning five more wins, is tongue in cheek. This team will not survive the weekend the way they played overall tonight. I don't know what our worst defensive half of the season was, but MSU had 52 in the second half, so it's certainly a contender.
But it is March. And we do owe Florida some payback. The First Half Bruins have given us all just a little hope that a Sweet 16 berth is possible, and if you'll excuse me for a moment, I'm going to hold onto that small measure of comfort until Saturday.