NCAA Tournament First Four Game: Michigan State makes it 23 straight years in “The Big Dance” as they play UCLA tonight

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State has earned a bid to its 23rd consecutive NCAA Tournament, extending the longest NCAA Tournament streak in Big Ten history.

The Spartans (15-12) will face UCLA (17-9) in the First Four on Thursday, March 18 at 9:57 p.m. on TBS. The game will be played at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana. The winner between the No. 11-seeded Spartans and Bruins will take on sixth-seeded BYU (20-6) in the East Region on Saturday, March 20.

Michigan State’s streak of 23 straight NCAA Tournaments is not only a Big Ten record, it’s also the fourth longest in NCAA history (Kansas, 31, 1990-2021; North Carolina, 27, 1975-2001; Duke, 24, 1996-2019). In addition, MSU’s streak is the second-longest active streak in the nation (Kansas, 31).

UCLA finished fourth in the Pac-12 standings with a 13-6 conference record.

Michigan State is 4-6 all-time against UCLA, but has won the last two meetings, including a 75-62 win over the Bruins last season in the Maui Invitational. In the only other previous matchup in the NCAA Tournament, No. 7-seeded UCLA beat No. 10-seeded MSU in 2011.

Michigan State is making its 34th appearance in the NCAA Tournament with a record of 69-32 (.683) in its previous 33 tournaments. MSU has made 10 trips to the Final Four (1957, 1979, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2019) and captured the NCAA Championship in 1979 and 2000. MSU’s .682 winning percentage is the eighth-best all-time in NCAA Tournament play, while the program’s 69 total victories rank sixth all-time.

Below is a select transcript from Sunday night’s media availability with head coach Tom IzzoAaron Henry and Joshua Langford.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo

Opening statement…
My opening thought is that I want to thank my players. I lied to everybody, I tried to take the heat off, I said the 23-year stretch didn’t matter; when I look back and I see Mike Krzyzewski not in it, I know Kansas got more, but I think we are the only school, us and Duke that had the same coach, and I’m proud of it. I want to thank them because they went through hell. I feel like getting in is a big deal. It’s going to be exciting. There were a few surprises but at the same time there have been a lot of surprises this year, a lot of people have gone through hell and I’m just happy that we are one of 68 teams and like I said to you three weeks ago when we had that daunting schedule of seven games in 15 days, or whatever it was, all against those ranked teams, I said it’s an opportunity. We have another opportunity ahead of us and it will be one game at a time, but at Michigan State, we play this for the weekend. That’s the way we always have and I’m never changing that. I don’t care what seed they put me, and so the object is to win the weekend. It went from two games to three games. I can’t think of a team that’s more prepared to play one day preps back-to-back-to-back more than we are. I’m happy for the players. I’m happy for the former players who set the standards here. I’m happy for the Mateen Cleaves’ of the era when it started. I’m happy for the Walton’s and the Draymond’s and the Valentine’s and the Winston’s and all the guys that kind of set the standard over the years, and it was a chore to maintain it. We got through it in a way that I think few could and I mean that. I’m proud of my team, I’m proud of my players, I’m happy for them.

On the changes of playing an extra game being a new territory but not really because what you played down the stretch…
Well, what we faced down the stretch entirely and the other thing I told my team, looking at those brackets, it seemed like some teams got a tremendous benefit from not playing the games. We did what I thought the company line is, we came back and played those three games and as I look back would I have been better off not playing them, did I hurt my team some, maybe. We did what we were supposed to do, I look around the country and I see some teams that played a lot less games and I think got some benefit. We are battle tested, we’ve been through it all and I’m proud of them for that. I like the way we went; we had our backs against the wall, we had to win, we played all those games with one- or two-day prep anyway so we are tested on that. We played some of the best teams in the country. I mean Michigan twice, they are a one seed, Illinois, they are a one seed, Ohio State, they are a two seed. We played all those teams so I think we are prepared as anybody.

On the Big Ten being represented in the tournament…
I think when you get the best league in the country, I definitely think Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Iowa deserved to be 1 and 2 seeds but then I think that the four teams at the end are 9, 10, 12, 14 seeds, you got your opinion, I got mine. I think if you are the best team in the conference and everybody is talking that every night in, night out is a tough night and then you throw in because so many people had to deal with the Covid situation, I’m just happy we made it through, I’m happy that it got through. Personally, I think there could have been 10 teams in our league, so I think the league was that good and compared to some leagues, I’d definitely say that, but you know what it doesn’t matter, the games begin on Thursday, that’s when we are playing and I’m fine with that.

On what seed do you think you deserve…
It just depends. There are always upsets, which is another strange rule that teams that win conference tournaments, even if it’s the shock of the world, can’t be in a play in game. I’d say there a couple teams there. There were a couple of other teams that can have, not even close to as many, quad 1 wins in that some from smaller conferences. Yeah, I was a little surprised, but it’s over guys so what seed do we deserve, there was a time when I was dying to be in the tournament and I still am and to think that we’ve been in this thing for 23, really last year, 24 straight years is incredible and by the time I get to my hotel I’m going to think of it as an incredible opportunity and I’ve told my team the same thing I told you guys when we played that daunting schedule two weeks ago, it’s an opportunity. We get a chance to play UCLA, as I said phenomenally coached, and I mean that. Hell, I’ll let Bill Walton talk about the game, it’s a Thursday night game, it’s the biggest game, it’s the only game of two major conferences and I think it will be good exposure. I told Aaron Henry your parents get to see three games instead of two…I was just surprised that it was a play-in game, then again I’m in and I got the same opportunity as the number one seed, same opportunity, and that’s the way I’m going to look at it.

Joshua Langford

On using the First Four as motivation…
The fact of the matter is we have an opportunity, at the end of the day that is all we can ask for, and so we have to take advantage of that opportunity, and we have to make the choice as a team, we all have to make a collective decision that we are all going to give 110 percent because it is win or go home. The fact of the matter is we have an opportunity, and no one can take that from us, so we just have to use that to the best of our ability.

On playing in the NCAA Tournament after personally not playing in it the past couple of years…
It’s great, man, it’s great, you know like you said I haven’t been able to play the last two years, to be able to come back and not play in two years and having the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, that is a second to none opportunity, so I am just going to make the best of it.

On seeing the team’s name on the screen…
Everybody was grateful, everybody was locked in, we have a chance to make a great run in this tournament and do some great things. At the end of the day, like I said all we can ask for is an opportunity and we got it and that is everybody’s mindset.

Aaron Henry

On getting in the tournament…
I was just excited to be in, these circumstances that have caused a lot, Covid, the way we have been playing, the way the season ended, everything was unsure, I am just glad to be able to play Thursday and have the opportunity to still play basketball more.

On his tweet saying “chances make champions”…
Cassius (Winston) used to say that a lot when he was here, you know it’s true, we have a chance to play basketball, we have a chance to win a championship, we have to win the weekend, well we have to win the first game during the weekdays, then win the weekend and hopefully continue with that. I’m excited and you know chances make champions, that is really how I feel.

On what Coach Izzo said to the team…
We have an opportunity to play, no matter where we are at, we could’ve been a 16 seed, but that’s ok, we have an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, that streak has been something that’s been for years before me, something is that almost standard here at Michigan State, and I’m glad to be a part of that, and I am glad to play Thursday.

On the end of the season preparing the team for the tournament…
We have to rev it up for sure, we definitely have to, from my perspective those are conference games, we know our opponents, we’ve seen our opponents play so many times, you know on TV or against other teams in the conference, but this is a new field playing teams from different conferences in a short amount of days, and different preparation, different playing styles, teams we may have seen before, and haven’t seen before potentially. We just have to come prepared and I think we have more than enough pieces to do that from the staff all the way to the players.

On what the team is capable of…
We have shown we can play with anybody, I think that’s the most important thing, we haven’t shown the consistency through a longer stretch, we have put together three or four games or two or three then drop some, this is a time where we can’t afford to drop any and I think we play our best basketball with our backs against the wall, it’s been like that for Spartans for a long time and what better way to have it than how we do now. I think this would be a good time to write our own story, I’m really excited about it, I’m really excited about the challenge we have ahead of us, and the road isn’t easy what we have and that is what makes it the best, I wouldn’t have it any other way honestly.

COURTESY MICHIGAN STATE ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS

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