What a difference a few hours can make. In my last update, I mentioned that the previous 48-hr period endured by MSU fans was perhaps the darkest on-court/field 48-hr period that I could remember as an MSU fan. The loss at Michigan followed by the apparent sudden reversal of Luke Fickell was a face jab / gut punch combo of epic proportions. The football coaching search appeared to be in shambles. Moreover, the basketball team was on a 3-game losing streak with the potential of it quickly turning into a 5-game streak. Things looked grim.
In the first half of game at Illinois, things looked great. Early in the 2nd half, MSU built a 20-point lead. But then, things started to slide. The lead was quickly cut back to 13... and then 7... and then with 5 minutes left, Illinois actually took the lead.
Here we go again.
Instead of the feel-good dominating road performance that we have been waiting for all year, it looked like it is just another chapter in MSU’s latest horror show. What is worse than getting behind big, trying to fight back, yet falling short? I will tell you: it’s squandering a huge lead and then falling short at the end.
But, fortunately, Cash and Xavier had different plans. FINALLY, MSU was able to close out a close game on the road, both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. The win felt good. As the old saying goes, it is always darkest just before dawn. It might have been close to midnight EST when the Tillman scored the winning basket on a put-back dunk, but it seemed like the sun was starting to peak a bit over the horizon.
Then, when actual Daybreak arrived Wednesday morning, MSU fans were greeted with even more good news: the hiring of Coach Mel Tucker to lead the football team. I could go on for paragraphs about this subject, but suffice it to say that a new era has clearly dawned on MSU football, and the future looks a heck of a lot brighter than it did on Monday. Only time will tell if he was a good hire, but I remain, as always, optimistic.
But, the main event of this post is basketball, so the natural question to ask is how much did MSU’s big win in Champaign impact the overall Big Ten race? As usual, the table and graphs below show the updated win matrix and trends, derived from Kenpom efficiency data.
While MSU’s fortunes are certainly on an upswing, the bump from winning at Illinois was not as large as I expected. MSU’s trimmed the gap to current first place team Maryland to about 1.5 games, but Penn State also increased the gap between 2nd and 3rd thanks to their big win at Purdue.
Meanwhile, as I predicted a few weeks ago, Illinois seems to be regressing to the mean a bit and has now fallen back to 4th place, almost a full game of expected wins behind MSU. After that is the standard log-jam of 7 teams with expected win totals roughly between 11.1 and 9.7. Wisconsin currently leads that pack, with Michigan edging a bit closer to 10 wins on the back end. Nebraska and Northwestern are still bad.
As for how this translates to odds to win or share the Big Ten title, that matrix and trend plot is shown here:
Again, while MSU is clearly moving in the right direction, the odds to win / share the Big Ten regular season only edged up slightly to just below 20%. Meanwhile, Maryland and Penn State’s odds are at 60% and 51% respectively. Illinois’s odds have fallen to 6%, while Iowa, Wisconsin, and Rutgers all still have odds between 1 and 2%.
To give a bit more information, the enhanced Big Ten standings are shown below
As I think about the big picture, here is what is basically happening. MSU is two games behind Maryland and one game behind Penn State in the loss column, with only 6 games to go. As a result, MSU basically needs to run the table in order to win the Big Ten. Considering 3 of those 6 games are against Penn State and Maryland, there is certainly opportunity.
But, MSU essentially used up all of its mulligans already. MSU will win the Big Ten at 15-5, but if MSU drops one more game, they are going to need a lot of help. Now, the good news is that based on the luck calculation, both Maryland and Penn State might be due for a stupid loss in the near future. Maryland has already had a few very close calls (at Indiana and this week vs Nebraska both ring a bell) and they seem ripe for a bad game. I said the same thing about Purdue last year before they traveled to Minneapolis late in the season last year. The Terps have road games at Ohio State, Rutgers, and Minnesota remaining (in addition to the 2 games vs. MSU). If MSU cannot sweep Maryland, we need them to drop at least 2 of their other remaining games.
As for Penn State, MSU will get a crack at them in State College in a few weeks. But, PSU’s remaining schedule is quite a bit softer than either MSU or Maryland. They face MSU and Illinois at home, and their road games are at Indiana, Iowa, and Northwestern. Even if MSU sweeps Maryland but loses at Penn State, it is the Nittany Lions that would need to lose 2 of those other remaining games. That is possible, but it is easy to see why PSU’s odds are almost the same as Maryland’s despite being a game back in the loss column.
For now, it is one game at a time, and that next game is Saturday against Maryland, as MSU celebrates the 20th (gulp) anniversary of the 2000 National Title. This is a game MSU needs to win. Period. One can’t help but think back to a similarly embroiled MSU team in 2016, clad in neon green, who desperately needed (and got) a win at Breslin against a ranked Maryland team. With a win on Saturday, MSU stays in the Big Ten race and will add a very valuable win to that NCAA tournament resume. Lose, at it is time to start officially start reevaluating the season’s goals.