As we move to turn the page on the calendar from January to February, we have reached almost exactly the mid-way point of the Big Ten regular season. MSU observed this milestone by playing and winning perhaps the least anticipated game on the schedule: a home game against doormat Northwestern (no offense, Wildcats). After a somewhat sleepy first half, MSU took care of business in the second act and did exactly what a championship contender should do against a severely outmatched opponent: they blew them off the court.
While the win was fun, it didn’t exactly move the needle much in the big picture of the Big Ten race. The statistics already had assumed MSU had a 95% chance to win the game, so moving that probability to 100% doesn’t change much. Quantitatively, the following table and trend graphs summarize the expected wins total and win matrix for all 14 Big Ten teams following the action on Thursday night.
Not surprisingly, MSU’s expected win total held steady at just over 14 wins. Meanwhile, both Maryland and Illinois beat stronger teams midweek (Iowa and Minnesota) and thus got a bigger boost in expected wins to close the gap with MSU to just below a full game.
Farther down the standings has Rutgers and Iowa in a dead heat for 4th place at just below 12 wins, with Penn State and Wisconsin not far behind. Minnesota and Ohio State are hovering just under 10 wins, while Purdue and Indiana are closer to 9 wins. Michigan is solidly in 12th place at 8.5 wins, while Nebraska and Northwestern continue to reside in the basement.
As for the odds to win or share the Big Ten regular season title. The following table and graph summarizes the current numbers and season trends.
MSU’s odds did dip a little to 57%, due to the improvements made by Maryland (31%) and Illinois (28%). Iowa and Rutgers are both right a 7.7%, while Penn State is now at 4.6%. No other team has current odds over 2%.
Finally, I have also updated the Big Ten standings as shown here:
In addition to the “plus/minus” values (road wins minus home losses), I have added a new column for a new metric, which here I call “luck.” What is “luck”? Good question. Mathematically, this is the difference between the actual number of wins each team has and the expected value of wins predicted for that team based on the spread / Kenpom data.
Basically, teams are “lucky” if they tend to win more toss-ups than they lose. If you flip a fair coin ten time, you would expect to get 5 heads. If you get 6, you are “lucky” by 1.0. The numbers above make the same calculation for all completed Big Ten games using the up-to-date Kenpom efficiencies to retroactively calculate the odds of each team winning those games.
One could certainly argue that “luck” is not the right word. Championship teams are the ones that usually win the toss-up games. That is why they are champions. I actually agree with that. But, that said, Kenpom himself calculates a similar metric and he calls it luck as well. So, I am going to go with that term for now. If nothing else, it a s simple, four-letter word that is easy to fit into a table.
Looking at the above table reveals some interesting things related to “luck”. It should come as no surprise that the teams at the top of the standings are luckier than the ones at the bottom. But, about half of the conference has values close to zero. It is the other teams that are interesting.
The most obvious team to point out is Illinois, which a shocking luck score of 2.84. This means that they have won almost 3 more games in Big Ten play than their Kenpom efficiency margin score predicted. Basically, they have won a lot of close games. Rutgers is also pretty lucky, with a score of 1.2. On the flip side, Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan all have luck scores below negative one.
If we refer back to the Kenpom ratings in the first table, these numbers should not be a surprise. Even though Illinois is sitting in first place in the standings, their Kenpom rating is good for only 5th overall. In contrast, Ohio State’s Kenpom rating is 13th, yet they are tied for 11th place in the Big Ten. Lucky teams are outplaying their Kenpom ratings.
There are a couple of things that could be going on here. First, if the Kenpom data is accurate (i.e. if it can be relied on as a good measure of the relative strength of each team) than this does suggest to me that a team like Illinois is actually just “lucky.” In other words, they are likely to revert to the mean any day now.
However, the Kenpom data is simply an average of a team’s performance over the entire year, and not a true measure of how good the team is right now. So, teams that get relatively better as the season goes on would naturally appear to be “lucky” while teams that are regressing will appear “unlucky.” Which explanation is true? Like many things in life, they are probably both true, to some extent.
Either way, the next few games will tell us a lot. Illinois’ next five games are @ Iowa, vs. Maryland, vs. MSU, @ Rutgers, and @ Penn State. The data suggests that they will only win 2 of those 5 games. If they do better than that, then perhaps they are just a rapidly improving, championship caliber team. If they don’t, then they are likely just regressing to the mean.
As a final note, I should point out that Maryland is essentially equal to MSU so far both in luck and in overall Kenpom efficiency. The most likely outcome is that those will be the two teams that will ultimately face off for the title. The two head-to-head games between those squad will be critical. The first of those games is February 15th at Breslin and there is still a lot of other games to be played in the mean time. MSU needs to continue to rack of wins in order to stay at the top of the standings. The next chances comes tomorrow in Madison.
That is all for today. As always, enjoy, and Go Green.