If You Don't Graph, You'll Cry (Actually, You Can Do Both)

I like to think that my specialty as a blogger is "rational analysis."  This is no time for that.  But I don't know how to do anything else.  So let's do some math.

The 2010-2011 basketball season is clearly the most disappointing of the Tom Izzo era.  The only thing that can avoid turning "gut-wrenching nonfulfillment of potential" into "utter and complete catastrophe" would be to somehow recover to make the NCAA Tournament, extending MSU's 13-year streak and giving the team one more chance to display some basic level of competence on a national stage.

As things stand right now, MSU's resume actually still holds up fairly well.  The team has a .500 record in the toughest conference in the country, with three wins over ranked opponents.  Crashing the Dance, which projects tournament bids/seeds based on the factors the selection committee has tended to favor in the past, thinks MSU is a #9 seed at the moment.  Joe Lunardi says they'd probably be in right now, too.  All the mathematical ranking systems (KenPom, Sagarin, RPI) have the team in the low to mid 40s, which is a far cry from #2 but not on the other side of the bubble by any means.

The problem is that the trendlines for this team are, to say the least, going in wrong directions:

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The projections based on the KenPom ratings, which weight recent play more heavily, now have MSU favored in only two of its final nine regular season games: home to Penn State and home to Iowa (yes, the Iowa that just threw us around like a ragdoll).  Accounting for the fractional odds, the mean outcome is a 3-5 record, which would put the team at 16-14 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten.  That wouldn't be enough.

If the team could get somehow squeeze out four wins down the stretch to get to 17-13 and 9-9, that could actually be enough--although a win in the Big Ten Tournament might be needed, too.  There are three extra bids this year, and the team would have picked up at least one more quality win along the way.  KenPom gives MSU roughly a 40% chance of getting to at least 9-9.  (He also gives us about a 25% chance of being in the position of needing a win in Indianapolis just to be NIT eligible.  Looking at the bright side: My trip to the conference tournament will have real meaning this year.  The team will either be playing to solidify its at-large resume, pulling out all the stops to get the Big Ten autobid, or at minimum trying to get to .500 for NIT purposes.  I promise to cheer extra loud.)

If a resurgence is to occur, it's extremely unlikely to occur immediately, though, with road games in Madison and Columbus on tap in the next 12 days.  Barring the team pulling a major upset in one of those two games, MSU will need a home win against Penn State in between just to get to 6-7 with five games remaining.

Any talk of pulling out of this nosedive hinges, of course, on the team finding some level of emotional stability.  The comments from the locker room last night were extremely disheartening.  On paper at least, it sure felt like Tom Izzo threw Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers under the bus.  The two seniors didn't take too kindly to the criticism, one gathers.  One of Izzo's strengths has always been managing the team's emotions, keeping them from getting to far up when they're winning and from getting too far down when they're losing.  Last night, it would appear he let his own emotions get the best of him, which is disappointing.  If you're going to call out individual players, do it behind closed doors.

Whether Izzo can repair that damage and then address the tactical and personnel issues haunting this team is entirely an open question.  (My amateur recommendation, which I have absolutely no confidence in: Go to a ten-man rotation.  Play everyone at least 10 minutes per game.  Extend the defense and see if you can manufacture some transition offense.  Mistakes will be made, but mistakes are being made with the starters all going 30+ minutes, too.  You'd give the younger players a little more game experience going into next year, and maybe regenerate some cohesion as a team.  Again, I have zero confidence in this plan.)

While I think our current level of despair as a fanbase is entirely justifiable, I also think we probably are just a little spoiled.  An NCAA Tournament bid ain't nothin'.  The numbers say the odds of earning a bid are still well above zero.  We'll see what the coach and the players have to say about that.

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