But actually the Bruins do stack up pretty well against the Spartans.
In fact, in comparing the two schools, it's interesting how similar UCLA and Michigan State are in many ways.
From a general viewpoint, both teams, right now, are primarily lacking toughness and heart. The biggest negative the Bruins have shown so far this year – even beyond a sometimes struggling offense – is a lack of real competitiveness. It's a very similar case for Michigan State. Head Coach Tom Izzo has been fairly open about trying to get his team fired up and competitive.
Michigan State has some talent, but you could say that perhaps their talent was a bit over-rated coming to school compared to how it's panned out. That sounds a bit familiar.
The team is still trying to mesh, and put together some components that don't necessarily go together well. Ding!
The team, though, does play very good defense when it can sustain a high intensity level. Pot – kettle.
Michigan State also played Kentucky, and lost 79-74. In that game, they trailed by as many as 15, but then pulled to within one point in the second half. They were within two points with a minute left in the game.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Spartans and the Bruins is the fact that Michigan State has sophomore Paul Davis, the 6-10 center whose talent has carried them so far this season. Davis was considered by many to be a very elite prospect out of high school, and he's living up to his hype. He's averaging 14 points and almost 8 rebounds a game, leading the team in both categories. He has some very good skills for a kid his size, and likes to face the basket, shoot it, or drive. He also has very good scoring moves around the basket, and utilizes great quickness to overcome bigger or strong opponents. He's an All-American-caliber player with a level of talent that UCLA hasn't seen yet this year. While Michael Fey might start off guarding Davis, we could possibly see T.J. Cummings get a big chunk of the defensive assignment in an effort to get more quickness on Davis.
Interesting, though, is that one of the main targets of Izzo's harsh public critiques has been Davis.
After Davis, the Spartans are a bit of a patchwork team, put together out of necessity at different positions. They play mostly four guards in their starting lineup to go along with Davis, which doesn't give them a great ability to match up against teams with size. Their next biggest starter is 6-5 junior Alan Anderson, who is truly a wing. Anderson, if you remember him as a high school prospect, was a bit over-hyped out of high school, and hasn't much lived up to expectations. On one hand, he's considered a bit soft, but on the other hand, he's had to match up defensively against players much bigger and stronger than he is. He could defend T.J. Cummings, and Cummings would be able to exploit him inside easily. Defensively, Cummings and Trevor Ariza should be able to stick with Anderson, who is bothered by athletic defenders.
Another player that hasn't yet lived up to his hype is wing Kelvin Torbert, the hyper-strong 6-4 junior. Torbert, though, has slowly kept improving after being billed as one of the top five players in his class out of high school. He's always been a great athlete, while the rap against him as been his skills, particularly his shooting ability. But he's improved, and can get hot at times from the outside. He's averaging 11 points a game, and shooting a decent 40% clip from three. He likes to use his body to muscle for points around the basket. This is the matchup that could present the biggest problems for the Bruins, with Torbert probably able to physically overpower Ariza or Dijon Thompson. It's going to be a very good test for Thompson to see how tough and competitive he can be.
Michigan State's backcourt does have some talent, led by 6-3 junior shooting guard Chris Hill, who actually plays out of position and runs the point for the Spartans. Hill, though, has been the subject of much of Izzo's frustration – at times looking very good and quick, at other times being very lazy on defense and putting up ill-advised shots. Cedric Bozeman will probably get the defensive assignment against Hill, and Bozeman's on-the-ball defense has a chance of shutting down Hill, much as it did Kentucky's Gerald Fitch.
Playing the two guard is talented 6-3 freshman Shannon Brown. Brown can really shoot, but he's also very good at putting the ball on the floor. After Davis, he could be Michigan State's most talented player. At this point, though, he's just limited by his freshman inexperience, out of sync at times in Izzo's offense, and falling asleep on defense.
The Spartans don't have a great deal of depth. They have bodies, but not a great deal of bench talent. First off the bench is 6-3 sophomore Maurice Ager at the wing, and then Michigan State brings in some size for defensive matchup purposes in 6-10 Jason Andreas and 6-8, big-bodied freshman Delco Rowley. Andreas has started a couple of games this year. 6-2 guard Tim Bograkos has played some minutes. Izzo has changed his lineup quite a bit so far this season, starting Ager and Andreas as well as Rowley, looking for a combination of players to find a spark. Their primary starters, like UCLA, get a bulk of their minutes, though, with Hill playing as much as 39 minutes in a game.
Michigan State looked over-matched against Kansas and Duke, but hung with Kentucky and Oklahoma, despite losing all of those games. They haven't beaten anyone of significance yet. They're a team that doesn't fit well together offensively, and don't play with good intensity or intelligence on defense for considerable stretches. They are entirely beatable. In fact, overall, you might think after watching this game that UC Santa Barbara is a better team than Michigan State.
I've heard that the UCLA coaching staff really challenged the players' competitiveness in practice this week. Michigan State is a pretty decent rebounding team, but I think you can expect UCLA to be particularly cognizant of blocking out and rebounding in this game. Cummings, as it was announced, will start at power forward, and his main assignment will be to get defensive rebounds. Ariza will slide over to his more natural small forward position. This leaves UCLA with a bit of a liability defensively at the guard positions, with Thompson and Bozeman showing susceptibility against smaller, quicker players. Look for Howland to go to Morrison quickly off the bench if he needs his defensive intensity.
After watching the Santa Barbara game, Izzo will have to throw some zone defenses at the Bruins and see if they can beat it.
But with Cummings and Ariza getting more comfortable in their second game back, Howland having made adjustments this week in practice and challenging his players, and Michigan State on the road in a loaded Pauley Pavilion, it's a situation that's rife for UCLA to pull off the upset.
Michigan State 65