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Spartan Hoops Schedule Analysis (pre-Big Ten)

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Before MSU tips off against Northwestern, let’s take a closer look at the full Big Ten schedule for the Green and White

NCAA Basketball: Western Michigan at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past several weeks, I have presented a series of analyses where I used Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency data to make various projections about the upcoming Big Ten basketball season. While the robustness of this type of efficiency data this early and in such an unusual season is certainly debatable, it does provide a useful tool with which one can objectively look at the upcoming season.

As MSU prepares to take on the first Big Ten opponent of the year on Sunday in Evanston, I thought that it would be a good exercise to look at MSU’s entire schedule as a whole to get a feel for how the season might ebb and flow. To conduct this analysis, I used the current Kenpom data and projected the current win probability for all 20 of MSU’s currently scheduled games. The full schedule is visualized below in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Projected win probabilities for MSU’s 2020-21 basketball schedule with road games denoted by the black boxes

The logo on top of each bar represents MSU’s opponent and the black boxes indicate a road game. The bars are spaced based on the date of the game such that breaks before certain games (such as the six day break before the road game at Iowa) are more visible. If the current win probability is over 50 percent, I show the bar in green. If it is below 50 percent, the bar has stripped red lines.

As an overview, my analysis of the Kenpom data current projects that MSU will be favored in 13 of the 20 total Big Ten contests. In addition, the expected value for the total number of wins (which is equal to the sum of the win probabilities for all 20 games) is now at just over 11 wins. While I personally feel that Michigan State will likely end the season with more than 11-13 conference wins and a higher Kenpom efficiency margin, that is what the data says on Dec. 19.

A closer look at the schedule can give MSU fans a feeling for how the season might progress. For example, MSU’s schedule is relatively light right out of the gate. The current projections suggest that MSU will be at least a slight favorite in the first six Big Ten games and in eight of the first nine. MSU’s easiest three road games (at Northwestern, at Minnesota, and at Nebraska) all fall in the first four games. Only the road game at Iowa on Jan. 14 projects as a loss and MSU could very well be 12-0 coming into that game.

That said, due to the strength of the Big Ten, virtually none of the games on the schedule are gimmes. Based on expected value, MSU is only expected to win about three of the first five games and between five and six of the first nine. As I look at the early schedule, in addition to the road date in Iowa City, the biggest threats appear to be the road game at Minnesota and the home games against Wisconsin and Illinois. Those will all be tough, but winnable games.

If MSU can go 7-2 in this early stretch, I think that this would be a solid start to Big Ten play. If MSU can only go 6-3 or worse in this stretch, then I think the odds of the Michigan State capturing a fourth straight Big Ten title will certainly be in jeopardy.

The reason for this is that the backend of the schedule is significantly more challenging. Starting on Jan. 28, the Spartan begin a brutal gantlet of five games in 13 days, three of which are on the road: at Rutgers, at Ohio State, vs. Nebraska, at Michigan, and vs. Penn State.

The good news it that the two home games project to be two of the easiest games on the entire schedule, but the three road games are all tough. Based on expected value, three wins in this stretch would be an above average result. I should also note that late January and early February is historically the time when Tom Izzo’s teams usually hit a wall and drop a strange game or two. This stretch has all the markings of a mid-season mini-slump.

Unfortunately, the next group of five games does not provide much relief. The Spartans host Iowa, followed by two road games in the state of Indiana, a home game against the Buckeyes, and then a road game at Maryland. Kenpom only clearly favors the Spartan in the home game against Ohio State and the expected number of wins in this cluster of games is also between two and three.

The final game on the schedule is the senior day home finale versus the Wolverines. MSU does get a big of a breather in the form of a week off before this game, and I would expect a motivated, sharp effort. This is simply a must-win game that I expect the Green and White to win.

In order to win the Big Ten this year, MSU is likely going to need to win 15 or 16 games, most likely. As I look at the schedule, the Spartans are going to need to start strong and perhaps win at least eight of the first nine games to stay on this pace. Over the next 10 games, MSU is going to need to find a way to win six or seven in order to stay in the hunt. After that, just beat Michigan on March 7 and hopefully hang a banner after the game.

Championship Zone

The analysis above gives some context on the Big Ten race, but what about overall hunt for a National Title? Figure 2 provides a way to put the current MSU team into context with previous MSU teams, previous NCAA Champions, and the current field of contenders based on current adjusted Kenpom offensive and defensive efficiency.

Figure 2: Comparison of the Kenpom adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency of selected teams in 2020-21 compared to past MSU teams and past NCAA champions.

This figure contains a ton of information. First, the shaded green area contains every NCAA champion back to 2002. As a general rule, historically a team needs to have an offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) of over 111 and defensive efficiency of less than 96 in order to cut down the nets in early April.

As of Friday, only 10 total teams fall into this region of the graph, including Big Ten schools Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State. That said, the majority of former champions (14 of the past 18) also had a total adjusted efficiency margin of over 25.0 prior to the NCAA Tournament. Only three current teams: Gonzaga, Baylor, and Villanova are in this company so far in 2020-21.

As for the Spartans, MSU started the season just outside of the “championship zone,” but following the win over Oakland, the offensive efficiency improved just enough for MSU to barely make the cut, based on there metrics. At the same time, however, the Spartans’ defensive efficiency has been slipping. This will be interesting to track as the season progresses.

Figure 2 also allows for the comparison of this year’s Spartan team to past Tom Izzo coached teams. As of today, the 2020-21 Spartan team most closely resembles the 2007 team, statistically. The 2007 team, which was led by junior Drew Neitzel only went .500 in Big Ten play and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to No. 1 North Carolina as a No. 9. seed.

On a more positive note, the profile of the 2020-21 team so far is also similar to the 2010 Final Four team as well as the 2003 team that lost to Texas in the Regional Final. Hopefully, as Big Ten play gets underway, we will see the Spartans’ trajectory improve both offensively and defensively. A nice benchmark to shoot for would be the 2009 team that made the National Championship game at Ford Field. An incremental improvement on both side of the court would push the 2021 MSU team in that direction.

That’s all for today. I plan to update the this plot as well as the season move along. As always, enjoy, and Go Green.