The 2021 NCAA Tournament officially (or unofficially, depending on your perspective) got underway on Thursday night with the “First Four” matchups. Michigan State earned a spot in the games after a tumultuous 2020-’21 season and faced UCLA. The winner would get a berth into the Round of 64 on Saturday.
Let’s take a look at what happened.
Game of the Night:
-No. 11 UCLA Bruins 86, No. 11 Michigan State Spartans 80 (OT)
This game looked relatively even on paper, but most were leaning Michigan State heading into tip after the Spartans finished the regular season so strongly. And for most of the night, that’s exactly how it looked. Michigan State held a double-digit lead for large segments of the first and second halves.
Unfortunately, Michigan State followed that quality start with a complete meltdown in the closing minutes, letting UCLA back into the game and eventually forcing it to overtime. The Spartans had nothing to offer in overtime and fell 86-80. Aaron Henry led the way with 16 points, seven assists, and five rebounds. Joshua Langford also had 12 points. Jaime Jaquez led the way for UCLA, finishing with an impressive 27 points.
While this certainly isn’t the end Spartan fans were hoping to see, the team deserves credit for resurrecting what looked like a lost season a month ago. After losing on the road to Purdue on February 16th, the team was10-9 overall, 4-9 in Big Ten play, and well outside every bracketology expert’s projections. In a COVID-19 season, it would have been easy for the team to throw in the towel and starting look toward next year. But instead, Michigan State doubled down, upset three top 10 teams, and earned an NCAA bid. That speaks volumes about Tom Izzo and this program’s resilience.
The biggest questions moving forward will be about the team’s roster and upperclassmen Aaron Henry and Joshua Langford. While every player on the roster has the option of returning for next season, that seems tremendously unlikely. Izzo has already hinted at significant roster turnover and it’s hard to say it would be surprising. Henry is also considered a legitimate NBA prospect, so don’t be surprised if he takes his shot at this summer’s NBA Draft.
It’s a tough end to a tough season for the Spartans, but at least the team got a few nice moments for fans to enjoy this offseason.