The Spartans are 6-2 and ranked #20, with their two losses coming at #6 Duke and at #22 George Washington. Among their wins was a blow-out of Stanford, 78-53.
It's UCLA's first road game of the season, to boot (not counting the neutral site of the Arrowhead Pond). This is really the first team UCLA will face that has both very good perimeter players and and an elite inside player.
The one player who truly gives Michigan State an advantage is its center, junior Paul Davis (6-11, 260). Davis is easily the most talented big man that will walk on the floor tonight, and will be a challenge for UCLA's big men to defend. He's averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds a game, and is very athletic and skilled. To UCLA's advantage, he sometimes likes to float outside a little too much and settles for jumpers, but when he does get inside he's very quick and agile and tough to defend.
But after Davis, UCLA matches up well with the Spartans. Even if UCLA does decide to play Dijon Thompson at the four and go with one post and essentially four perimeter players, they match up against Michigan State, which essentially does the same.
Michigan State starts 6-6 senior Alan Anderson, 6-5 junior Maurice Ager, 6-4 sophomore Shannon Brown and 6-3 point guard Chris Hill. Their primary bench help comes from 6-4 senior Kelvin Torbert and 6-0 freshman point guard Drew Neitzel. So, the Spartans mostly go with one big and four perimeter players for the entire game.
Head Coach Tom Izzo likes to shuttle in his wings regularly, keeping them fresh, with none of them playing over 26 minutes a game. Ager is perhaps the most gifted of the wings, averaging a team-leading 15 points per game. He's a good athlete who loves to shoot the three, and is quite successful at it this season, hitting 52% of his threes while only 51% from the field so far this season.
Anderson goes inside more, scoring more readily in the paint than any of the other wings. He's a strong, physical specimen at 220 pounds, but is still a face-up slasher type rather than a back-to-the basket scorer.
Brown is a good combination of size and quickness, with good perimeter skills and ability to create. He's also very good in transition, getting out on the break quickly and finishing very well. His athleticism could be a tough match up for UCLA's guards.
Another potential tough one-on-one matchup could be point guard Hill, a big, strong, mature senior. Hill likes to play physically, which will be a challenge for UCLA's freshman point guard Jordan Farmar, and uses it to create space to get off his shot. He's probably the team's best outside shooter and will quickly pull up for a three if given room.
The theme of big, strong perimeter players continues with Torbert, who is a rock-cut 215 pounds and one of the springiest players in the nation. He's never particularly realized the potential he had coming out of high school when he was considered one of the country's best prospects, his skills never developing to the point that he's considered a great basketball player rather than just a great athlete. He's considered a sixth starter, and in averaging 11 points a game, gives Michigan State six players who average in double figures for scoring.
Freshman point guard Neitzel gets the most minutes off the bench, but has been careless, and hasn't brought the true point guard mentality to the team like Izzo thought.
Michigan State also uses a few other reserves sparingly. 6-10 sophomore Drew Naymick spells Davis in the post, and 6-8, 250-pound Delco Rowley comes in to lend some inside muscle and get some rebounds when they need it. Senior guard Tim Bograkos also provides steadiness off the bench.
Michigan State, for playing most of the time with just one post who isn't an inside bruiser himself, rebounds the ball pretty well. They've only been out-rebounded by teams with big front lines, and that's when they've lost. They did, though, out-rebound Stanford.
They also tend to be careless with the ball and when they've turned the ball over more than their opponents, they've also lost.
Both of these elements – rebounding and turnovers -- give UCLA a chance in this game. While UCLA is by no means a good rebound team, Michigan State, with its four perimeter players on the floor for most of the game, gives the Bruins at least a chance to compete in rebounding. UCLA has generally played decent transition defense for the season, and Michigan State loves transition, either living by it, or dying by it with turnovers.
This is truly a game that lives by the axioms of Ben Howland – that you win by playing defense and rebounding. If UCLA stays focused and can do that, they'll have a chance against the Spartans.
Being on the road for the first time, starting three freshmen, it could be just too much for this young Bruin team to overcome, though. Look for the youngsters to give it a good fight, but their inexperience leading them to their first road lesson of their careers.
Michigan State 81