In UCLA’s first four games, the Bruins have shown that they have the talent that should make this year’s team the best team Steve Alford has had at UCLA on defense. Of course, the same team has also shown no interest in playing two halves at a high level, let alone 40 minutes of defense.
But the talent is there for this team to be special and beat Michigan State tomorrow night at 7 pm PT on Fox Sports 1.
The Michigan State Spartans are ranked 10th in adjusted offense and 25th on adjusted defense by Kenpom. Meanwhile, the UCLA Bruins are ranked 33rd in adjusted offense and 61st in adjusted defense. That doesn’t bode well for UCLA’s chances. In this week’s Top 25 polls, Michigan State is ranked 11th while the Bruins are ranked 17th. ESPN gives MSU a 76% chance to win. The other numbers, such as stats are harder to judge, in part, because UCLA has played four cupcakes while MSU has lost one game to #2 Kansas. In contrast, the Bruins’ opponents are 9-12 with a number of the wins over non-D-I opponents.
Two more interesting numbers may be the “excuse” for Alford. The Spartans are the exact opposite of UCLA in terms of experience. Michigan State’s top 8 feature only one freshman while the Bruins feature only one upperclassman Prince Ali in their top nine. The Spartans’ starting lineup is all upperclassmen.
On the other side of the coin, UCLA has a height advantage. Not only does Michigan State not have anyone close to Moses Brown’s height, according to the Spartans’ official roster the Bruins have four players taller than any of Michigan State’s regulars. That’s not to say the Spartans’ players aren’t talented but UCLA will have a height advantage across the board.
Power Forward 6’7” Senior Kenny Goins vs. 6’10” Jalen Hill
Goins has been a steady force for the Spartans. He leads Michigan State in rebounding and had 11 boards against Kansas. After taking only 15 three-pointers in his first three seasons, he shot eight against Kansas. Cody Riley is likely a better matchup, but it will be interesting to see how much Cody can go. Also, Tom Izzo is smart will likely force Hill to deal with a big man double team.
Edge: Michigan State
Forward/Center 6’8” Junior Nick Ward vs. 7’2” Moses Brown
Brown still has a height advantage as he has had in all games so far, but this is a big step up in class. Ward is a crafty lefty post that is a master of drawing fouls. He shoots a free throw a little over every three minutes for his career. To find a UCLA player that equaled his 200 free throw attempts his freshman season, you’d have to go back to Kevin Love in 2007-08.
So far, Moses has been great at avoiding fouls. This will be a true test and definitely a key to the game. Can Ward get Moses in foul trouble? How will Moses deal with a crafty veteran? It’s a risky to predict this one but I will go with Moses.
Guard 6’4” Senior Matt McQuaid vs. 6’4” Prince Ali
This is a matchup of complete opposites. McQuaid’s bio on the Michigan State website describes him like this:
Long, lean true shooting guard with high basketball IQ • Possesses a quick trigger with NBA-plus range • One of the team’s best defenders.
McQuaid is a dedicated veteran defender and leader who gets his minutes by playing hard defense and smart offense. Ali? Remember when he dunked over Kentucky? Ali has never been associated with high basketball IQ or as a great defender.
Edge: Michigan State
Swing 6’5” Junior Joshua Langford vs. 6’8” Kris Wilkes
Langford earned his minutes the old fashioned way—by playing defense—and he was the co-defensive player of the year for MSU last season. He is also an athletic wing who is very good at shooting threes. He can certainly torch Wilkes from three if Wilkes doesn’t pay attention. That brings us to the enigma that is Wilkes. Wilkes is an NBA-level talent that got stronger in the off-season to prepare for the pros. But, so far this season, he has looked selfish and often lackadaisical on defense. Will Wilkes up his game for the bright lights and big competition? Like with Moses my prediction is risky.
Point Guard 6’0” Junior Cassius Winston vs. 6’3” Jaylen Hands
Winston’s Michigan State bio describes him this way:
Great passing ability and exceptional vision combined with very good ball skills • Talented point guard who can put points on the board in bunches, but looks to get his teammates involved first • High basketball IQ that ranks among the best of the Izzo era.
Well, they can both put points on the board in bunches, but basketball is a team game and the point guard is the quarterback.
Edge: Michigan State
Sophomore Zavier Tilman is a 6’8” forward/center who gives the Spartans another strong inside body to throw at UCLA. Junior Kyle Ahrens is a 6’6” guard/forward who is coming off an injury and isn’t afraid to shoot a three. Freshman Aaron Henry is a versatile 6’6” forward.
With Riley back, UCLA is legitimately deep at every position except point. Riley’s rawness is a wildcard but there is no doubt UCLA’s second team is more athletic and versatile than Michigan State. If an experienced guy like Ward gets UCLA in foul trouble, there are plenty of bodies to help
In sum, the two key matchups may be Moses Brown vs. Nick Ward and Winston vs. Hands. UCLA has a shot to win the first one but their chances may be hurt by the second. Michigan State will get Ward the ball. Will UCLA get it to Brown?
I predicted this as a loss before the season and see no reason to change. That said, the Bruins have a talent advantage and they certainly have a shot, but, instead, I expect to hear a post-game press conference talking about a young team that lost to an experienced one. There’s some truth to it, but it’s still a tired excuse.