LOS ANGELES -- UCLA stumbled and staggered at the end of the regular season and into the Pac-10 conference tournament, but the Bruins get a clean slate this week when they face Michigan State in the second round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.
UCLA (22-10), which missed the NCAA tournament last season, was seeded No. 7 in the Southeast bracket and will face the No. 10-seeded Spartans (19-14), who have advanced to the Final Four in each of the past two seasons and six times in the past 12.
It will be quite a challenge for UCLA, which is reeling after an embarrassing 76-59 loss to Oregon last Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament. Still, the Bruins are in after a 14-18 record last year kept them out of the Big Dance for only the third time since 1989.
"We expected to get back in the tournament," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "That's the expectation here."
A second-place finish in the Pac-10 all but assured the Bruins would be back, but the stumble to the finish line -- UCLA went 3-3 in its final six games and needed overtime to defeat an undermanned Washington State in the regular-season finale -- casts doubt on how far the Bruins can advance in the NCAA tournament.
"The tournament is a whole new season," Howland said. "Everybody comes into the tournament at 0-0 and everybody who is in there is deserving."
Michigan State is not exactly rolling coming in. The Spartans were No. 2 in the preseason rankings this year with nine players returning from the team that lost to Butler in the national semifinals last year, but the Spartans have lost nine of their past 16 games, including a 61-48 loss to Penn State in the Big Ten conference tournament.
But Howland said Michigan State's tournament experience would be a big advantage over his Bruins. Five of the current Spartans players have been to the past two Final Fours. UCLA has only two players -- guards Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson -- still on the team from when UCLA last went to the tournament in 2009.
"They are a NCAA tournament battle-tested team and program with [coach Tom] Izzo probably having the most success in the tournament over the last 12 years of anybody," Howland said. "They’re a team that has had great success in the tournament. It’s going to be a very difficult game this year and we know that."
Still, playing a difficult game is better than playing none at all, which is what the Bruins had to face last year.
"Last March wasn't fun," Howland said.
This March hasn't exactly gotten off to a good start.
The Bruins have lost two of their three games this month, and Lee injured his left knee during the regular-season finale at Washington State. Also, forward Tyler Honeycutt and freshman guard Tyler Lamb have strep throat and Anderson is battling a viral illness.
None is expected to miss the NCAA tournament opener Thursday.
"As a college basketball player, this is what you want to do," Anderson said. "It was pretty disappointing not getting there last year so we want to make the most of this opportunity."
Although most of the players and coaches were confident that the Bruins would make the tournament, there were some moments of trepidation during the selection show.
UCLA's bracket was announced last, so the Bruins didn't hear their name called until the end of the show. Additionally, UCLA did not allow media into the room where the Bruins had gathered to watch the show.
"That made me think a little," said point guard Lazeric Jones. "Why wouldn't they have TV cameras in here? Did they think we weren't going to get picked?"
Center Joshua Smith said the team had a "controlled" celebration when they found out they were in and who they'd be playing.
"It was like 'It’s cool. We’re in'" Smith said. "It’s cool to say we’re one of the 68 teams."
The only regrets were that they didn't finish the season stronger to improve their seeding or get selected to a site that was closer to home.
"The Pac-10 tournament was for seeding and maybe to get in the West, but we lost and we got a 7-seed in the Southeast," Smith said. "We’ll take what we can get."