For the last month or so, I have posted a series of pieces digging deep into the numbers of the upcoming Big Ten basketball race. I ran a series of season simulations to estimate the odds for each team to win the Big Ten regular season, the odds for seeding and the ultimate results of the Big Ten Tournament, and I performed an extensive study of Big Ten strength of schedule.
However, one limitation of this initial round of analysis was that it depended solely on the accuracy of Ken Pomeroy’s preseason rankings. While these number provide a good starting point, no one really knew back in mid-November how good any of these teams really would be. Now that a few weeks of basketball are in the books, we have some actual data. We still don’t know a lot, but we know more than we did a month ago.
The first Big Ten basketball game will be played on Sunday at 2 p.m. as Penn State travels to Michigan. So today gives a final chance to refresh the calculations before the Big Ten season starts in earnest. As expected, the landscape already looks a bit different than it did just a few weeks ago.
Table 1 below gives an updated summary of the Big Ten regular season odds, including the updated Kenpom efficiency margin values and rankings (as of Saturday morning, Dec. 12 and prior to Illinois’ loss to Missouri), the resulting expected conference win total, and the full win distribution matrix.
The big mover in the preseason is clearly Iowa. According to Kenpom, Iowa’s efficiency margin has increased by more than 2.5 and as a result, the Hawkeyes now own the highest Kenpom ranking and expected win total in the conference at 12.9. Meanwhile, preseason Kenpom favorite Wisconsin has dropped to second place and has lost over half of a win in expected value.
As for MSU, despite wins over both Duke and Notre Dame, the Spartans have dropped by almost exactly 1.0 in Kenpom efficiency and as a result now sit in sixth place in expected wins at 11.3. If these numbers truly reflect the strength of each Big Ten team, MSU has a 52 percent chance to win between 10 and 12 conference games, a 29 percent chance to win 13 or more, and 19 percent chance to finish under .500.
That said, the Kenpom data still suggests a very competitive race. Ten of the 14 total Big Ten teams are expected to win between 10 and 13 games. Some teams are going to overachieve and win a game or two that they shouldn’t and conversely, other teams will lose a few games that they should win. In 2021, a game or two here or there might be the difference between finishing in second place or in 10th place.
Table 2 below shows the updated odds for each team to win or share the Big Ten regular season title.
As expected, based on the Kenpom and expected win totals, Iowa now also projects to have the best odds to win the Big Ten regular season title at 32 percent. Wisconsin has now dropped to second place at 28 percent, while Ohio State, Michigan, and Illinois all check in with odds between 14 and 15 percent.
The Spartans’ odds now project at about 12 percent, down from 18 percent a month ago. Overall, there is a 62 percent chance that either 14 or 15 wins will be enough to hang a banner this year, and almost a 20 percent chance that 16 wins or more will be necessary.
Strength of Schedule Update
Interestingly, the updated Kenpom values have also impacted the overall conference strengths of schedules, which are updated below in Figure 1.
I spent a lot of words recently discussing how Wisconsin had a very significant schedule advantage over the rest of the conference. The updated data in mid-December tells a slightly different story. While Wisconsin still figures to have the easiest conference slate, Illinois is now less than a tenth of a win behind.
There is also a clear second tier of teams with slightly easier schedules (by about 0.2 wins) including Purdue, Maryland, and Michigan. The Spartans fall into the next tier of seven teams 0.2 wins behind the second tier. Poor Nebraska and Northwestern are still bringing up the rear.
This data explains why the Illini and Wolverines have a slight edge in Big Ten conference regular season odds over MSU, despite the fact that the three teams have almost identical Kenpom efficiencies. It should also be noted that Iowa still has a relatively difficult conference schedule which is currently preventing them from having even a larger lead in regular seasons odds.
Big Ten Tournament Update
While the Big Ten Tournament is still a long ways away, it is always fun to look at what the possible seeding and odds might look like. Table 3 gives the updated seed odds and distribution, based on the updated Kenpom data.
In general, the order of the teams in this matrix is going to mirror the expected win totals shown in Table 1. Iowa projects to have the best odds to capture the No. 1 seed, while Michigan State now projects to fall to the No. 6 seed. That said, the odds distributions are very broad, as expected for what is projected to be a tight race. MSU still projects to have a 38 percent change to capture a double bye.
I should also point out the column in Table 3 labeled “if favorites win.” These seeds represent the scenario that will occur if the projected favorite wins of all remaining Big Ten games. This is technically the most likely individual scenario, and I believe this scenario will be the most interesting one to follow as the season progresses.
Most, if not all, conference tournament projections use the concept of “if the season ended today.” But if you think about it, this makes little to no actual sense. The only thing that matters is where the teams land at the end of the season, not on some arbitrary date in mid-February.
Right now, if the projected favorites all win every game, Wisconsin would win the conference outright with a record of 14-6. In second, there is a four-way tie at 13-7 between Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois and Iowa and ironically, Iowa would lose the tiebreakers and fall to the No. 5 seed and out of the double bye tier. Michigan State would finish in a tie for sixth place with Indiana and Rutgers at 12-6.
Just for fun, the simulated results of the Big Ten Tournament are shown below in Table 4 for the scenario where the favorites all win.
In this case, the fact the Iowa loses the tiebreakers and drops to the No. 5 seed clearly impacts the Hawkeyes’ odds. As a result, Wisconsin once again checks in with the best odds at 18 percent, although this is a drop of three percentage points from the preseason.
As for MSU, I project the Spartans’ current odds to win the Big Ten Tournament to be just eight percent, which is half of what I projected a month ago. Most of this drop is due to dropping out of the double-bye tier, which as I demonstrated previously is worth around six percentage points.
This all said, there is still a fair amount that we don’t know about each Big Ten team, as the vast majority of games have been played against mid- or low-major teams. As Big Ten wins and loses pile up and more data accumulates, the picture will start to snap into focus.
I will check in periodically as Big Ten play progresses to see how these numbers change. Until next time, as always, enjoy and Go Green.