As February starts to draw to a close, the race for the Big Ten title is starting to come into full focus. MSU had a fairly easy test this week in Lincoln, and fortunately they passed. While there certainly were some encouraging signs (rebounding! Gabe Brown! Henry! Arhens!) there were also still some concerns (turnovers? Bingham? and... Cassius still doesn’t quite seem to be himself.) At the end of the day, it was a pretty big win for MSU against a very bad team. All I can say is that big wins are better than close wins, and close wins are better than loses. I will take it.
As for the Big Ten race, here is the updated win matrix for all 14 teams, once again derived from Kenpom efficiency data
As expected, Maryland appears to be pulling away in the final lap. Following Penn State’s surprising loss at home to Illinois this week, the Terps now have almost a 2-game lead in expected wins over the Nittany Lions. After that, the battle for 3rd place is really heating up. Illinois, MSU, Iowa, and Wisconsin are all within 0.3 of a win of each other.
Behind this cluster of teams is another small pack made up of Michigan, Rutgers, and Ohio State. Those three teams are all expected to win between 10-11 games. Then, there is the pack of Purdue, Indiana, and Minnesota who project to win 9-10 games. Essentially, we have 3 teams that are battling to avoid playing on Wednesday. Nebraska and Northwestern? Yup, still bad.
As for the translation of this data in the odds to win or share the Big Ten title, here are those updated odds:
It was a great week for Maryland and a bad one for Penn State. Right now, the Terps’ odds are a shade over 90%, with Penn State now down to below 20%. MSU’s odds are actually still 3rd best at 7%, with Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin still holding out hope.
As for the enhanced Big Ten standings, including the road win / home loss plus-minus rating and “luck,” that is shown here:
It is not hard to see why Maryland is leading by two games. They have won 4 road games and not lost any at home. That said, they have also pulled out a couple of close games, and thus their luck score is over 2 games. Is Maryland ripe for a stinker or two? Is it possible that they drop 3 of their final 5 games?
While that may sound ridiculous, Maryland does close @ Ohio State, @ Minnesota (on 2 days rest), vs. MSU, @ Rutgers (on 2 days rest), and vs. Michigan. Kenpom’s projections suggest that the Terps will be an underdog in Columbus and the other two road games are coin flips. In addition, the home games against the Michigan schools are both slightly over 60% propositions. Therefore, the expected win total for Maryland is only 2.76 for those final 5 games. If their “luck” were to run out, they could easily find themselves at 14-6. Actually, the win matrix suggests that there is a 40% chance that Maryland does not get to 15-5.
From an MSU perspective, this means that there is room for hope. When MSU lost to Maryland last weekend, all seemed to be lost (and it still likely is) but the fact that Penn State lost a game this week does make MSU’s possible path to Big Ten title a bit less narrow. MSU still gets another crack at Penn State, so MSU controls their own destiny with all teams except Maryland. IF MSU can run the table (and give Maryland another loss) we “only” have to hope for Maryland to drop 2 of their other 4 games, which as stated above, it not that far-fetched. Sunday afternoon’s contest between Maryland and Ohio Sate is a big one. If the Buckeye’s can win, we can start to dream again...
As much as I am an optimist, the math still tells me that there is less than a 10% chance for MSU to hang a regular season banner. So, the more immediate goal is simply to continue to get better and to try to secure a double bye (top 4 seed) in the Big Ten Tournament. As I stated last time, 12-8 is likely going to be good enough to secure the double bye, but the number of possible outcomes is still very high. One thing that my simulation does tell me is that MSU is very likely (84% odds) to end the regular season tied with at least one other Big Ten team. So, tiebreakers are going to factor in. At this point, I can only ball-park estimate a 50-50 chance that MSU gets the double bye is they finish 12-8.
The fact that MSU has games remaining against Iowa, Maryland, and Penn State will impact these tie-breakers. MSU swept Illinois and Rutgers, but split with Wisconsin and Michigan. Next up for MSU is their one and only contest this year against Iowa, and it is a big one for many reasons. A win gives MSU 11 conference wins and valuable leg up on the Hawkeyes for tiebreaker purposes. A loss would make it very difficult to secure a double bye.
So, while the dream of a Big Ten title still lives (on life support) it is still necessary to take care of business. That resumes on Tuesday. Until then, Go Green.