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Bacon on Michigan State men's early exit, U of M's hopes, and a March Madness protest

The Michigan State men's basketball team extended coach Tom Izzo's streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 23, but lost in its opening-round game against UCLA.
2021 NCAA Photos
The Michigan State men's basketball team extended coach Tom Izzo's streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 23, but lost in its opening-round game against UCLA.

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is underway, and for Michigan State, it's already over.

Early Friday morning in West Lafayette, Indiana, the Spartans lost to UCLA 86-80 in overtime. Thursday's play-in games also determined Michigan's first round opponent.

Michigan Radio sports commentator John U. Bacon joined Morning Edition host Doug Tribou for a look at both teams, the upcoming start of women's tournament, and more. 

MSU stumbles

This was the first time Michigan State had ever been in one of the tournament's four play-in games. The Spartans had a double-digit lead over UCLA at halftime. The Spartans also led by five points with a little over a minute to go in regulation, but the Bruins kept coming back.

"I hate to say it, but Rocket Watts, the [MSU] point guard, is not Cassius Winston, who was the great point guard from last year's team," Bacon said. "They collapsed down the stretch. They had the game and just fell apart, so that's an inexperienced team. They'll be back next year."

Michigan State did not have the kind of season that Spartans fans have come to expect during head coach Tom Izzo's 23 consecutive trips to the big dance. Bacon believes this campaign's a blip.

"This is a 23-year NCAA tournament run. I'm telling you right now that is much harder than getting to the Final Four. Of course, you're going to have up and down years. The amazing thing is you get there every year anyway," Bacon said. "A rough game, a rough season in some ways, but still an amazing streak."

Michigan learns its next opponent

The Michigan men are the No. 1 seed in the east region of the NCAA bracket. On Saturday afternoon, they'll face Texas Southern. The Tigers beat Mount St. Mary's to advance Thursday. 

After winning the Big Ten's regular-season championship, the Wolverines stumbled in the Big Ten Tournament. Bacon thinks they'll be in better form Saturday and he's predicting an easy win.

"I would say they need to show up with basketball clothes on and basketball shoes. That's about all," he said.

He added that Michigan State drew the short straw in the play-in games when it got matched against UCLA.

"If Michigan State was in that [West] bracket, they would have won easily won."

The Michigan women earned the highest NCAA seed in team history.

As for the second round and beyond, Bacon sees a tough road for U of M.

"It will get harder for Michigan pretty soon, of course. And the hardest thing is they lost their second-best player in Isaiah Livers with a [stress fracture in] the Big Ten tournament. How they replace him going forward is going to be the question that [head coach] Juwan Howard has to answer."

Players' online protest

Some players from teams in the tournament have been using the hashtag #NotNCAAProperty on social media to protest the fact that players don't have control over their own images and likenesses when it comes to endorsements, paid autographs signings, and other ways to profit. 

Bacon says, although there hasn't been any talk of boycotting games in the 2021 tournament, this is another step closer to a bigger confrontation with the NCAA, which sets the rules now. 

"These athletes have no power until they sit down. And once they do, they suddenly have all the power. And it's going to happen one of these days. They will refuse to take the court," Bacon said. "When that happens, the jig is up for the NCAA."

Michigan well-represented in women's bracket

Three teams from the state of Michigan made the cut for the women's tournament this year. 

Central Michigan is a 12-seed facing fifth-seeded Iowa on Sunday. After getting hot in the Big Ten tourney, Michigan State is a 10-seed and plays Iowa State on Monday. 

The top seed from the Mitten is U of M, a six-seed set to face Florida Gulf Coast on Sunday. This is the highest entry ever for the Wolverines.

Bacon says any pressure on U of M to deliver a deep run will come from within. 

"The internal pressure must be tremendous. They worked so hard in [head coach] Kim Barnes Arico's tenure at Michigan, ninth year now, to get this far. They're favored for the first game, certainly," he said. 

"The good news is also they have Naz Hillmon, the best player in the Big Ten, who is coming back next year. So, it's not their only chance, but I know after a good season, they want to make a run, so we'll find out what they've got. But it's been fun to watch them."

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John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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