OR "We really need some actual college basketball competition to talk about."
As part of its voluminous (1,232 pages!) College Basketball Encyclopedia, the good folks at ESPN got Jeff Sagarin to go back and compute his mathematical ratings for every college basketball season going back to 1938. Somewhat oddly, Michigan State is ranked just 15th in the all-time rating compilation--and, even more strangely--just 8th among the current 11 Big Ten teams.
After all, MSU ranks 9th in the number of all-time Final Four appearances, and only 6 other schools have won more NCAA championships.
But here's the thing: It's a formula. Formulas are based on certain assumptions. In this case, Mr. Sagarin's formula is based on the assumption that every game a team plays has equal importance. Nonconference games count the same as NCAA Tournnament games. The final game in an 8-20 season counts the same as the final game in a 30-2 season. Above all else, the Sagarin ratings value consistency (consistency being of predictive utility).
For all our recent success, the MSU basketball program has not been all that consistent through the decades, as conceded by our current head coach:
"We've had a strange career here," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "Good in the '50s, down in the '60s and '70s [save a title in 1979 and a regional final appearance in '78], average half of the '80s, good the rest of, started better in the '90s and in the last 12 years we've been damn good.
"We're not as consistent as some programs, but I'm surprised so many Big Ten programs are in there."
Decade-by-decade Sagarin rankings for all the Big Ten schools after the jump.
(Notes: A blank entry indicates the program did not appear in the top 40 for that particular decade.
The 1940s include the 1937-38 and 1938-39 seasons.)
Given those decade-by-decade numbers, it's fairly remarkable MSU even got to #15 in the all-time rankings. Minnesota, which finished one spot ahead of MSU on the all-time list, appeared in the top 40 in all 6 of the decades prior to the 2000s. Meanwhile, MSU appeared in the top 40 in just 4 decades and didn't make the top 20 until the last two decades.
So, understood for what it represents, I don't think the #15 ranking is anything to take umbrage over. (And it's actually right in line with the #15 spot Beyond the Arc slotted MSU in at last year; that exercise also valued consistency, although it gave some weighting to championships and NCAA Tournament performance.) At the end of the day, college basketball is about the NCAA Tournament. And our tournament-related rankings are just fine.
Further, to quote one of this country's great sports philosophers, "I ain't really concerned with what was happening in the dinosaur ages. Leon lives in the right now." And, in the right now, MSU's ranking looks A-OK.
P.S. I'm not quite sure why the Big Ten--with 8 of the top 15 teams--comes out so well in the all-time rankings. It may just be a function of having more well-established programs going back 7 decades. Every current Big Ten team but MSU (which, along with Penn State, was not a member of the conference at the time) appeared in the top 40 for the 1940s.