Michigan State vs. UCLA Is the 'First Four' Game We've Waited Years to Watch

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 18, 2021

Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Rocket Watts
Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Rocket WattsCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

There are a bunch of weird things about the bracket for the 2021 NCAA men's basketball tournament.

No Duke. No Kentucky. No Indiana. No Louisville. At least two of those four teams partook in each of the previous 44 NCAA tournaments. The last time all four missed the cut was in 1965 even though Duke finished that season at No. 10 in the AP poll and all four teams had winning percentages of .600 or better. The 23-team era of the NCAA tournament was...different.

No Kentucky, no Louisville and yes Rick Pitino (Iona) is even more bizarre.

Baylor as a No. 1 seed is a first. The Bears had not previously received a No. 1 or No. 2 seed and have not been to a Final Four since 1950. And Gonzaga as the favorite to win it all is a fun reality that some people simply cannot process because they refuse to believe a "mid-major" could ever be the best team.

However, before the tournament can truly begin on Friday, one of the strangest sights of the entire bracket will be Michigan State and UCLA battling in the First Four late Thursday night.

Let's be brutally honest: Since the NCAA expanded the field from 65 to 68 teams in 2011, the First Four has mostly felt like a gimmick.

Yes, VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four in that inaugural year. And yes, three other First Four teams (La Salle in 2013, Tennessee in 2014 and Syracuse in 2018) have made it into the Sweet 16. In fact, 2019 was the first time all of the First Four winners were immediately eliminated in the first round.

It's not part of the bracket 99.9 percent of us fill out, though.

Maybe you wait until after the First Four to submit your picks, but most people have already decided whether they think "MSU/UCLA" is good enough to beat BYU. And because the games aren't really a part of the totally-not-for-profit bracket pool you're in, it doesn't feel like they are truly part of the tournament, either.

Also, the nomenclature has been just plain annoying.

From 2011-15, the NCAA changed the naming convention for the first three rounds of the tournament, hoping we would all accept the First Four as the first round instead of calling them "play-in games." It was finally changed back to just First Four in 2016, but those five years will forever be confusing in the record books.

There's nothing like seeing that Creighton was eliminated from three consecutive tournaments (2012-14) in a round that no longer exists.

However, the First Four's biggest legitimacy problem hasn't been the naming, but rather the lack of big names.

We're never going to convince the average sports fan to care about the two games involving No. 16 seeds, but even the at-large play-in games haven't had much national appeal. Twenty-eight programs have been to at least 30 men's NCAA tournaments, and while one-fourth of them (BYU, Kansas State, Michigan, St. John's, Syracuse, Temple and UCLA) have taken part in a First Four game, there has never been a head-to-head game within that group.

Until now.

UCLA's Johnny Juzang
UCLA's Johnny JuzangDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

UCLA has won more national championships than any other program, and the last time Michigan State went more than four years between Final Four appearances was in the mid-1990s.

As far as Sports Reference's simple rating system is concerned, the Bruins and Spartans are, respectively, the fifth-best and 11th-best programs of all time.

Now, here they are, battling for the 64th and final (chronologically, at least) spot in the field.

No matter who wins, the brand name alone is going to make it feel like that team is a threat for the type of magical run VCU went on a decade ago. Between that and the fact that we need to wait later into the week than usual for the first games to begin—and because we didn't get to watch any March Madness last year—the anticipation for this First Four clash is palpable.

Which high-profile program takes the first step on a journey to win seven consecutive games, though?

Seven weeks ago, UCLA would have been the heavy favorite. At the beginning of February, the Bruins were 13-3 and looked like a Top 25 team. Meanwhile, the Spartans were 8-6 overall, had just come back from a lengthy COVID-19 pause and didn't appear capable of beating anyone.

Since then, however, the Bruins have lost six of 10 games while trying to adjust to life without their best big man, Jalen Hill, who has been away from the team for personal reasons since early February. The Spartans have been more successful with great home wins over Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan, but they have still been wildly inconsistent. All five of their losses since mid-February have come by double digits.

Suffice it to say, there's a reason these teams just barely made it into the tournament, and it's hard to know what to expect.

KenPom.com likes the Bruins, but only slightly. Those projections give UCLA a 55 percent chance of winning with an expected final score of 68-67.

Of course, KenPom doesn't account for the NCAA tournament history of the coaches in this matchup.

At 52-21 overall, Michigan State's Tom Izzo has been one of the most successful NCAA tournament coaches of all time. His teams always seem to hit their stride at the perfect time of year. The whole "January, February, Izzo" thing isn't just hot air; the man owns this month.

Then there's Mick Cronin, who has a 6-11 career record in the Big Dance. To be fair, he was coaching a No. 5 seed or worse in all but one of those tournament appearances, so multiple wins weren't to be expected in the vast majority of those trips. Still, during his time at Cincinnati, Cronin became synonymous with early exits from the tournament.

In a game the metrics say UCLA should win by one, is that difference enough to swing things in Michigan State's favor? Or is this the year Cronin finally silences the naysayers and puts UCLA back on the map as an annual contender?

I have no clue. This game is a complete coin flip, if only because there's no telling which version of Michigan State we're going to see on any given night.

But for the first time ever, I'm legitimately ecstatic about a First Four game.


Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.