UCLA and Michigan State are two of the most successful teams in NCAA Tournament history. They have combined for 13 national titles and 28 trips to the Final Four. Both teams barely made it into March Madness this year, however, getting in by the skins of their teeth and being assigned to a First Four play-in game on Thursday as two of the last four teams to receive at large berths. Let’s take a look at their NCAAB odds and the best sportsbook to use for this match.
UCLA Bruins vs. Michigan State Spartans
Thursday, March 18, 2021 – 09:57 PM EDT at Mackey Arena
The Spartans appeared to be on the verge of missing the Big Dance this year. In late February, they were 10-9, 4-9 in the Big Ten. Michigan State won five of its final seven regular season games, however, including wins over top five teams Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan. MSU finished 15-12, 9-11.
UCLA had the opposite path. At the end of January, the Bruins had won 12 of 13 and were 12-2, 8-0 in the Pac-12. They finished the year on a four-game losing streak, however, to fall to 17-8, 13-6.
The winner of the game will get No. 6 BYU in the official first round of the tournament.
Final Four to First Four
The last time the NCAA Tournament was played, in 2019, Michigan State went to the Final Four. Now, two years later, the Spartans are kicking off the tournament on Thursday with their lowest seed in team history—at No. 11.
Still, the Spartans are in the dance, and they know what that means. They’ve got a shot.
"Chances make champions," captain Aaron Henry tweeted after the Spartans found out they were in. “Cassius (Winston) used to say that. We got a chance to play basketball, we got a chance to win championships.”
Staggering Into the Dance
The late season slump capped a 4-6 close to the season for UCLA. The Bruins lost their last four after leading each game by at least eight points, and UCLA had very few marquee wins to point to on its tournament resume. Unlike Michigan State, who extended its NCAA Tournament streak to 23 straight years, second most in the country, UCLA doesn’t have anyone on the roster who has played in March Madness.
As a result, while Michigan State is focusing on getting a chance to compete, UCLA coach Mick Cronin has had to work on the team’s confidence. “It’s making sure our guys understand that we’re a good team,” Cronin said, “and they can win.”
Part of the reason for UCLA’s struggles after a slow start is the loss of a pair of top players. Senior leader Chris Smith went down with a torn ACL in January, and junior big man Jalen Hill left the team, leaving the Bruins without an inside threat. UCLA’s top four scorers are all guards, and the Bruins are a balanced team, with five double-digit scorers.
NCAA selection committee chair Mitch Barnhart said the two blue bloods made the play-in game because, “We thought it would be a heck of a way to start the tournament off.” It may have been a joke, but it still seems like Michigan State’s top five wins and UCLA’s body of work deserved better.
The Bruins are a strong offensive team but struggle on defense. They’re No. 239 in the country at defending the three and in the bottom half in defending the two. They also don’t force many turnovers.
Michigan State is the mirror image. The Spartans’ success is based on their defense, while the MSU offense has struggled all year. Michigan State is No. 57 in three-point defense but No. 257 at hitting the shot. The Spartans are almost at bad—No. 251—in two-point accuracy.
Michigan State doesn’t have the size to take advantage of what has been UCLA’s biggest weakness. For our NCAAB picks, look for the Bruins to hit shots against the Michigan State defense and do enough on defense to slow down a sporadic MSU offense.
NCAAB pick: (visit our Sportsbook Review)
*The pick reflects the line at the moment the writer made the play, the odds at the beginning of this article show the live line movement. Since the lines might vary, don’t forget to refer back to our live odds.