by Daniel Olsen
BYU basketball is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. They are ready for whatever lies next. They are slated to play against the winner of today’s play-in game between Michigan State and UCLA. It’s time to take a closer look at the potential matchups and predict just how the trip to Indiana for BYU will go.
Scouting Michigan State
The Spartans finished ninth in the Big Ten and still somehow squeezed into the tournament field as one of the last four teams in. Last year, only a pandemic could stop coach Tom Izzo from getting to the NCAA tournament. In 2019, Izzo’s 22nd straight tournament appearance, the Spartans made it to the Final Four. While they would lose to the Texas Tech Red Raiders, the Spartans still made it to their tenth Final Four in program history.
According to ESPN, the Cougars are favored in every metric to advance to the Round of 32. In simulated brackets, they win this game 77 percent of the time. However, their odds aren’t as great against the Spartans as they would be against the other play-in team. Because of the success in the tournament, that could be a key factor in this game.
The key in this potential matchup will be how well BYU shoots. Their field goal percentage is relatively good compared with the rest of the NCAA. Michigan State, however, is in the bottom 50 percent in this statistic. Both teams rebound well on the defensive end. BYU is still better as the 19th best in the country in this metric. If they can give themselves some extra possessions, that will lead to more scoring opportunities and a Cougar win.
The Bruins are a little tougher to scout as they are not projected to win the play-in game. They have a rich history of their own. Although, their dominance was more so in the 1970s. They finished the season fourth in the Pac-12 conference but were upset by the eventual conference tournament champion Oregon State in the quarterfinals. The bid-stealing Beavers gave the Pac-12 a fifth ticket to the NCAA tournament.
While the Bruins had a hot stretch near the end of February, they have lost their last five games. March is not the time to go ice cold. Even if the Bruins found a way to beat the Spartans in the play-in game, they would be hard pressed to beat the Cougars in the Round of 64. They are not a consistent three-point shooting team as they made just 25 percent of their shots from downtown in the quarterfinals.
Best players on the court
On the Michigan State side, Aaron Henry is by far the best player on the court. He leads or ties in every statistical category on the team. He has 15.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks. One thing he does not lead the team in is turnovers with just .4 a game. That is a very good thing to not lead in.
UCLA doesn’t have any one outstanding scorer. However, they bring a balanced attack with six guys averaging double figures in points.
BYU has a two-headed monster with Matt Haarms leading the defense and Alex Barcello leading the offense. While they are dominating on the collegiate level, one can’t help but compare this dynamic duo to the likes of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert for the Utah Jazz. Haarms stands tall at 7’3” and Barcello is a scoring guard.
Prediction: BYU 80 MSU 72
BYU is set to take on the winner of the Thursday play-in game on Saturday evening at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the arena of the Butler Bulldogs. The favorite is the Spartans and that will be a great matchup for BYU. The Spartans might rank higher than BYU in more offensive categories but BYU ranks higher in every defensive category. It will be a tough battle, but expect BYU to get the win. In March, anything can happen. The Cougars will need to play their best game to avoid an upset. At least one of the first four tends to score an upset. The Cougars better hope that if that trend continues, it happens on the other side of the bracket.
Path to the Sweet 16
What chance to the Cougars have to advance after the first weekend in the East region? They will face the winner of a Lone Star showdown in 3 seed Texas versus 14 seed Abilene Christian. The odds would be in BYU’s favor in this matchup especially if the 14 seed gets an early upset. The Longhorns would be a tough out as a three seed though. The Cougars were already seeded as well as they possibly could have been. Many predicted them to get a seven seed or worse prior to Selection Sunday.
The Cougars will give a good fight, but it doesn’t seem likely that they will win more than one game this weekend. If they win both, they would shake up the schedule of their entire region due to the no Sunday play rule. While the East is currently set to play on Friday and Sunday, a BYU team in the Sweet 16 would force the league to switch dates with one of the other regions. In that case, BYU and the other four representatives of the East region would play a day earlier. It nearly happened before in 2003, and this time it probably won’t happen either.
If BYU has something to say about that, they could possibly give Texas some trouble and pull off the upset. However, they will have to play like they did against Gonzaga but for more than just one half. They will need at least 30 minutes of solid basketball and 40 to be safe.
Featured image courtesy Annie Barker, Deseret News