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With 29 of 99 regular season Big Ten games now in the books, the conference standings look downright smashing from a Spartan perspective:

                     |------CONFERENCE-------| |--------OVERALL--------|
--------- --- --- -- -- --- --- -- --
Michigan State...... 5-0 1.000 69.8 57.2 15-3 .833 78.4 63.8
Illinois............ 4-1 .800 66.2 62.2 12-6 .667 75.0 66.3
Wisconsin........... 4-2 .667 59.8 53.2 14-4 .778 68.9 56.7
Michigan............ 3-2 .600 66.6 60.6 10-7 .588 69.5 62.5
Ohio State.......... 3-3 .500 63.0 63.7 13-5 .722 75.4 60.7
Minnesota........... 3-3 .500 70.8 71.0 12-6 .667 77.4 63.1
Purdue.............. 2-3 .400 68.4 66.2 14-3 .824 76.0 61.9
Northwestern........ 2-3 .400 68.6 73.2 13-4 .765 69.8 62.2
Indiana............. 2-3 .400 62.2 71.4 8-9 .471 71.2 69.7
Iowa................ 1-4 .200 58.4 69.4 7-11 .389 63.1 66.4
Penn State.......... 0-5 .000 57.6 64.6 8-9 .471 66.2 61.6

Barring a complete disaster vs. Iowa on Wednesday night, MSU will be undefeated through the first third of the conference slate.  Meanwhile, either Illinois will pick up a second loss or Purdue will pick up a fourth loss tomorrow night (9;00, ESPN).

So, put in the order in for a 12th conference championship banner to hang from the rafters of the Breslin Center?

Well, maybe not quite yet.  Here are the current KenPom projections for the remainder of the conference season (newly available in a consolidated location):

Current Remaining Total
Michigan St. 5-0 9-4 14-4
Wisconsin 4-2 10-2 14-4
Ohio St. 3-3 9-3 12-6
Minnesota 3-3 8-4 11-7
Purdue 2-3 9-4 11-7
Illinois 4-1 6-7 10-8
Northwestern 2-3 7-6 9-9
Michigan 3-2 5-8 8-10
Indiana 2-3 3-10 5-13
Iowa 1-4 2-11 3-15
Penn St. 0-5 3-10 3-15


(Note: Keep in mind the projected record for each team is rounded off from the sum of the percentage odds for each of the team's remaining games.)

MSU is a 98% shot to beat Iowa Wednesday night.  So that means KenPom is basically predicting an 8-4 finish to the conference season.  Both our match-ups with Iowa will be out of the way at that point, and we don't play Indiana at home this season.

Seven of the 12 games will be on the road, with MSU favored to lose in three of them (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Purdue).  Elsewhere, Michigan looks to be regaining its footing just in time for MSU to visit Ann Arbor next week, winning in Champaign is never a simple proposition, and Indiana isn't going to roll over at home this year (not that they rolled over against us last year, anyway).

Add it all up and you can see why Tom Izzo is talking like this:

"I still think four or five losses can win this league," Izzo said. "I really do. I don’t think anybody’s out of the race in those top six or seven teams."

There's a bit of Izzo hyperbole there in terms of the number of teams that are plausible championship contenders, but three other teams remain solid threats:

Wisconsin: Mr. Pomeroy's computer doesn't know that Jon Leuer is injured, so the projected 14-4 record above is definitely optimistic--but the Badgers don't lose at home very often under any scenario, they've already beaten one quality team on the road without Leuer (Northwestern), and they have two of the toughest road games (Michigan State and Ohio State) out of the way.

Purdue: If the Boilermakers can win on the road tomorrow night, they'd be back to .500 in league play with 7 of their final 12 games in West Lafayette.  Purdue may look like a team going through something of an identity crisis, but keep in mind that this group of junior starters is the same group that went 15-3 in Big Ten play as freshmen, without a ton of help from upperclassmen.  They remain a distinct threat.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes' next 6 conference games include 4 home games and road games at Iowa and Indiana, so they could easily be 9-3 going into the home stretch.  The Buckeyes are 10-2 with Evan Turner in the lineup this season, and Turner seems to be pretty close to 100% at the moment (he's now won the Big Ten Player of the Week award in 4 of the 6 weeks for which he's been healthy).  The Buckeyes may well be primed for a run up the league standings.

MSU has certainly done everything it its power to grab hold of the lead in the conference title race, taking care of business against three good teams at home and beating what's starting to look like a pretty formidable Northwestern team on the road.  Combined with events elsewhere in the league--injuries to Evan Turner and Jon Leuer and a lackluster start to conference play by Purdue--MSU is as well positioned as it could be at this point in the season.  It's just that there's plenty of season left.

OK, Enough Worrying About the Future; Let's Talk About How Good We've Been So Far

In perusing MSU's game-by-game four factor numbers in conference play, I had a eureka moment: The 2010 Spartans have morphed into the 2009 Spartans!  Witness:

  • On offense, they're scoring by rebounding the ball (OffReb% of 36.5+ in all 5 games) and getting to the free throw line (FTR of 34.7+ in all 5 games) while not shooting the ball all that well (3 games with an eFG% under 46.0).
  • On defense, they're rebounding well (4 of 5 opponents held to an OffReb% under 32.0) and defending the perimeter (opponents shooting just 27.8% on 3-pointers).  (By the way, guess who the leading Spartan rebounder is on defense through 5 Big Ten games: Durrell Summers at 4.8/game. And he's #2 behind Draymond Green on the offensive end.)
  • On balance, the defense has been better than the offense.  4 of 5 opponents have been held to an efficiency mark under 85.0, while MSU has hit the 100.0 mark on offense only twice.

I've said on several occasions now that I've thought this team's destiny in terms of achieving statistical eliteness was on the offensive side of the ball.  It will be interesting to see how the offense/defense balance plays out over the next 13 games.  If the team can somehow combine the offensive efficiency they displayed through most of the nonconference season with their newfound defensive stinginess, there'll be even more to play for than a Big Ten title over the next three months.