TAMPA, Fla.--UCLA wanted to send an early message to Michigan State Thursday night and they did so even before the opening tipoff of UCLA's 78-76 victory over the Spartans.
Coach Ben Howland started freshman center Joshua Smith for the first time in 10 weeks simply because the Bruins wanted to show they weren't going to back down from the physical, Big Ten style employed by the Spartans.
"With a team like that, you've just got to be aggressive, just got to hit them in the mouth first, and that's what we did in the first half," Smith said.
Smith, who had been sitting out to start games in order to avoid foul trouble, scored UCLA's second basket of the game with a layup inside. He picked up an early foul, but as the game progressed, he figured out he could move bodies around in the paint and that his 6-10, 305-pound frame was no match for the Spartans.
He finished with 14 points on five of seven shooting.
"I thought it was a great move on Ben's part to start him," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "He's a load in there, and we haven't faced anybody like that so it was something new."
Smith's size and inside presence from the start was a key reason UCLA was able to out-rebound the Spartans, 25-14, in the first half and helped set a physical tone that impressed Michigan State.
"I think that's one thing Ben Howland has done, he's taken smash-mouth basketball to the West coast," Izzo said.
Smith said he found out last week that he would start against Michigan State and said he felt like he needed to live up to that role.
"When coach asked me to start, I took it upon myself to take my game to a whole nother level," Smith said.