Tom Izzo ‘surprised,’ not disappointed at MSU’s NCAA First Four draw
Coach Tom Izzo said March 14, 2021 he was “surprised” but “not disappointed” at Michigan State basketball’s NCAA tournament First Four draw vs. UCLA.
Michigan State athletics
Michigan State basketball walked into the Hall of Horror that is Mackey Arena and looked up at the big screen above the basketball court to see the Spartans’ logo.
Welcome to the 2021 NCAA tournament, where nothing is normal.
Fans at Purdue’s arena — a 1-hour, 15-minute bus ride from MSU’s hotel in downtown Indianapolis — typically let Tom Izzo and his team know “whose house” it is with a call-and-response with “Our house!” when they visit West Lafayette, Indiana. A sign near the rafters reminds them as much in the absence of spectators.
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Yet that’s where the Spartans practiced Tuesday and where they will meet UCLA in the First Four. A familiar place with a new postseason court to begin an abnormal NCAA tournament experience.
“I called (Purdue coach Matt) Painter on my way up and I said, ‘Hey, the least you could do is tell your wife we’re coming over for brunch. You beat me twice this year, I think you owe me that.’ He said she’d be glad to, but I never got a call from her,” Izzo joked during his news conference Tuesday. “The people up there, at least you’re in Big Ten country and they were all nice. They did a nice job with the arena. Everything’s good. I mean, it seems like there’s a million things you could complain about, because it’s just different.
“But there’s a lot of great things, too. And the best thing of all is I got 15 guys here who get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. You take that for granted at Michigan State, but you really take it for granted until you don’t play one last year.”
The Spartans (15-12) and Bruins (17-9), both 11-seeds, meet at approximately 9:57 p.m. Thursday. The winner advances a first-round game against 6-seed BYU on Saturday at another historic venue, Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
But to get to Hinkle requires beating UCLA in a building with many ghosts — and a statue of former Boilermaker player and Bruins legendary coach John Wooden standing watch outside.
Izzo is 9-15 at Mackey, and MSU has struggled there since its last win in 2014. The Spartans have lost their last four at Purdue, including a 75-65 road loss Feb. 16. They are 15-34 all-time since the building opened Dec. 2, 1967.
The Boilermakers opponent to christen Mackey that day? Wooden and UCLA, which has won both times it visited West Lafayette but hasn’t played there since 2000.
“I’m sure there possibly could be some advantages, because we’re kind of familiar with that place,” MSU senior Joshua Langford said Tuesday. “Familiarity does give you some type of comfort. At the end of the day, we’re just gonna come in and just try to do the best that we can and and play to the best of our abilities.”
There also will be familiarity for the Spartans with their opponent as well.
MSU beat UCLA in each of the past two seasons. The Spartans won, 87-67, in the Las Vegas Invitational on Nov. 22, 2018, behind 14 points from Langford among four starters in double figures. They won 75-62 at last season’s Maui Invitational on Nov. 27, 2019, with 12 points from Rocket Watts and eight from Malik Hall complementing 34 between Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman.
“You see some some toughness traits, definitely, when they attack the glass from all positions … with just how other they just seem hungry with the ball,” MSU junior Aaron Henry said Tuesday. “We have to be prepared for that and match the intensity and maybe take it up a notch. They play hard, they play smart, and they really attack the glass.”
Izzo also is familiar with second-year UCLA coach Mick Cronin from his years at Cincinnati, first as an assistant to Bob Huggins and then as head coach for 13 seasons. He went 19-12 in his debut campaign, guiding the Bruins to a second-place Pac-12 finish in the pandemic-shortened season, and told reporters in Maui he expressed his desire to model his program after Izzo’s tenets of defensive toughness and tenacity when he took the job.
“I told (UCLA athletic director) Dan Guerrero in my interview if I can do half of what Tom Izzo has done at Michigan State that that’s my goal at UCLA,” Cronin said in Maui. “To run a program, run it the right way, win the right way, graduate players — everything. They’re about team. Guys still make the NBA. They’ve got guys all over the NBA, and their guys win in the NBA because they’re taught winning in college.”
All but two of the Bruins who played in the loss to MSU in Maui are back. The Spartans lost Winston, Tillman and Kyle Ahrens from the playing group in that game. However, Izzo cautioned just how much difference a year can make.
“The one thing that’s bad is a West Coast team is usually a little softer over the years. But Mick brings a Midwest flavor to it,” Izzo said. “His teams are tough. He’s done a great job building that program again. Last year, he had some problems and kids didn’t want to buy in. Now he’s got kids that have bought in. I have a lot of respect for Mick and the way he’s done it and doing it in an environment that’s not as easy to do it in.”
The same can be said for Mackey and the Spartans.
“That is unique,” Henry said. “I’m sure everybody will feel a little more comfortable just having played there before. But anything can happen in this tournament, in these type of games, so you can’t try to treat them like any other game.
“It’s an NCAA tournament game, and we play a lot of good teams. We have to be ready to compete.”