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What Is the Best MSU Hoops Team That Didn’t Win a National Title?

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We could debate this for hours, but what does math say?

Middle Tennessee v Michigan State Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Do to the unprecedented events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, we will never know who would have won the 2020 Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. Granted, MSU was clearly surging, and Joe Lunardi, Nate Silver / 538, and my own simulation all came to the conclusion that MSU would have cut down the nets, but in reality the 2020 Tournament will go down as another example of “what could have been” for MSU fans.

Unfortunately, the history of MSU basketball is littered with these types of “what ifs.” For example:

  • What if the clock hadn’t stopped in Kansas City in the 1986 Sweet Sixteen, allowing top seeded Kansas to force over time against Scott Skiles’ scrappy MSU squad?
  • What if the officials would have noticed that Kenny Anderson’s shot to force over time in the 1990 Sweet Sixteen game against Steve Smith’s team actually was launched after the buzzer?
  • What if Alan Anderson hadn’t hurt his knee during the 2005 NCAA Tournament run?
  • What if Kalin Lucas didn’t blow out his Achilles’ tendon in the 2010 Sweet Sixteen game against Maryland... (Also, was is it with the Sweet Sixteen?)
  • What if Branden Dawson didn’t tear his ACL against Ohio State in the Big Ten finale in Draymond Green’s Senior season of 2012?
  • What if Keith Appling hadn’t hurt his wrist in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge early in the 2013-14 season?
  • What if Nick Ward and Kyle Arhens hadn’t been injured late in the 2019 campaign?

How many more title’s would MSU have? All seven of those teams would have had legit changes to win the whole tournament if clock problems and injuries hadn’t derailed them. Imagine for a second a universe where Jud had three titles, and Izzo had six more... or maybe had just won his seventh? OK, maybe that is a but much, but still...

What if...?

While all of those teams referenced above were certainly good, today I would like to tackle the following question:

Which MSU team in the past was actually the best team that didn’t win a National Title?

While this is a fun question to debate, it occurs to me that there is a mathematical way to answer that question. While it is always tricky to compare different teams from different years, advanced metrics, such as efficiency margins, provide a possible way to make this comparison.

Late in the season this year, before the world went haywire, I made a plot comparing all Tom Izzo coached MSU teams based on Kenpom’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency values (with the overall efficiency margin shown on the diagonals). That plot is shown here:

For reference, the shaded green area is the region where all of the NCAA Champions back to 2002 have fallen. While there is no available efficiency data for any of Jud’s old MSU teams (sorry, Coach Skiles) all of Coach Izzo’s MSU teams are shown. As one might expect, the 2000 Championship team had the highest overall efficiency margin of 33.6, but three other teams were also over 30:

  • The 1999 Final Four Team (31.6)
  • The 2019 Final Four Team (30.8)
  • The 2001 Final Four Team (30.7)

Considering that Kenpom efficiencies correlate very well with point spreads and point spreads correlate well with win probabilities, these three teams were probably the best Izzo teams that didn’t win a National Title. If we made a tournament consisting of all of Izzo’s past teams (sans the 2000 team) the 1999 team would be the slight favorite.

However, there is a slightly different way to look at and define this problem. While the 2019 team was very good last year, MSU finished the regular season ranked “only” fourth overall in Kenpom, behind Virginia, Gonzaga, and Duke. The 2019 field was overall very strong. So, while the 2019 team was, on paper, the best Tom Izzo team of the “Kenpom Era” (back to 2002 where the data is easily available) the odds of that team winning the tournament were not that high, simply due to the level of competition.

Just for fun, last year I ran a series of Monte Carlo simulations of each NCAA Tournament back to 2002 using Kenpom efficiency data. One of the many pieces of data that I extracted from these simulations are the odds for any given team to make the Final Four and to win the tournament. Below, I tabulated the Top 25 teams back to 2002 with respect to National Title odds, as well as all the MSU teams in the Top 300 (out of over 1,200). Teams that won the National Title are shaded in yellow.

There are several very interesting things about this data set. For example, the team with the highest odds to win the tournament in the past 18 years was the 2015 Kentucky team. However, their odds were “only” about 35 percent. While this number may seem low, it’s over five percentage points higher than the team in second place (the 2002 Duke squad) and well above the average for No. 1 seeds as a group, which is only about 12.5 percent. Also note that neither the 2015 Kentucky team nor the 2002 Duke team wound up cutting down the nets in early April.

Regarding Michigan State, a quick look down the list shows a bit of a surprise. Of all of Tom Izzo’s teams in the past 18 years, the one with the best odds to win the title was the ill-fated 2016 team. That team finished the year ranked No. 2 in Kenpom and had a 16.1 percent chance to win the title, which just also happens to be the highest odds of any No. 2 seed in the Kenpom Era.

In second place in this group is the 2012 MSU team (which finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in Kenpom) at 11.7 percent. However, MSU accumulated these stats almost exclusively with a healthy Branden Dawson, so the odds likely reflect a team where he was healthy in March. In third place was last year’s team checking in at 10.0 percent, and in fourth place is the 2018 team (5.7 percent) that couldn’t solve the Syracuse zone in the second round at Little Caesar’s Arena.

So while there is a strong argument to be made that the 1999 MSU team is the best MSU team not to win a National Title, I am going to go with the 2016 team as MSU that was most likely to win a National Title, yet didn’t.

Remembering the 2015-2016 MSU Squad

While most MSU fans try to block the memory of the 2016 team out of their mind, I think that it is appropriate to remind everyone of exactly how good that team was and how their season went down. Of course, the team was led by senior point guard Denzel Valentine (19.2 point per game, 7.5 rebounds per game, and 7.8 assists per game) who was a consensus first team All American and won several National Player of the Year awards. The team also featured follow senior guard Bryn Forbes (14.4 ppg) and senior center Matt Costello (10.7 ppg and 8.2 rpg). The starting line-up also consisted of junior guard Eron Harris (9.3 ppg) and one-and-done freshman Dayonta Davis (7.5 ppg and 5.5 rpg).

Players off the bench that saw some time were freshman Matt McQuaid, sophomore Tum Tum Nairn, sophomore Javon Bess, junior Gavin Shilling, sophomore Marvin Clark, freshman Kenny Goins, junior Alvin Ellis, senior walk-on Colby Wollenmen, and freshman Kyle Ahrens. The team also featured six different players who all shot at least 40 percent from three: Forbes (48.1 percent), Valentine (44.4 percent), Harris (43.9 percent), McQuaid (40.9 percent), Marvin Clark (42.3 percent), and Alvin Ellis (40.0 percent) although Clark and Ellis only took a combined 61 shots all year.

As for the 2016 season, MSU started ranked No. 13 in the AP poll with somewhat limited expectations, following a surprise run to the Final Four the previous year. The season then started with a bang, as MSU upset No. 4 ranked Kansas in the Champions Classic, aided by a triple double from Valentine and a perfect (and surprising) three-for-three shooting from the long line by freshman Matt Mcquaid. MSU shot up to No. 3 in the AP and then, after beating No. 24 ranked Louisville in the ACC-Big Ten challenge, they took over the No. 1 spot in the AP poll, which they held for five weeks.

Then things got interesting. Prior to the game against Oakland, Denzel was sidelined with a knee injury. MSU was able to avoid an upset to the Grizzlies in overtime, but the Spartans struggled for several games even after Valentine returned. By late January, MSU was sitting at 3-4 in Big Ten play and had sunk to No. 12 in the AP poll. MSU fans, as usual, freaked out.

Then came a home game against Maryland on January 23rd. Maryland was ranked in the Top 10, MSU was on a three-game losing streak, and they decided to wear new, neon green jerseys. It could have been an absolute disaster. But, it wasn’t. MSU beat the Terps, 74-65. Matt Costello hugged Izzo. The Spartans were back.

MSU proceeded to win nine of the final ten games in the Big Ten regular season, losing only at Purdue in over-time by a point. MSU would later avenge this loss in the Big Ten Tournament Final as they cut down the nets on Selection Sunday. While MSU did not claim a regular season title (Indiana somehow finished with only three loses) they still hung a banner and finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in the AP poll.

As for the 2016 Tournament itself, let’s just say that what could go wrong, did. First off, in an ironic twist, this was the same year that former MSU athletic director, Mark Hollis, acted as the chairman of the selection committee. Unfortunately, it always felt to me that this did not at all play in MSU’s favor.

As stated above, on Selection Sunday, MSU was ranked No. 2 in the AP poll and No. 2 in Kenpom and had just won the Big Ten Tournament. Virtually all of MSU five loses came when Valentine was out with, or recovering from, an injury. A No. 1 seed seemed like a no-brainer.

But, when the brackets came out, MSU somehow was given the No. 2 seed in the Midwest. A six-loss Oregon team and a seven-loss Virginia team both somehow got No. 1 seeds over MSU. It seems likely that the committee was afraid that granting MSU a No. 1 seed would give the appearance of favoritism since Hollis was the Chair.

That said, as a No. 2 seed, MSU’s first round opponent, No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee State should not have been a problem. MSU’s odds to win the game were slightly above 95 percent. But, things did not go as planned. The Blue Raiders went on a 13-0 run early and MSU never quite gained their footing. MTSU shot a blistering 11-19 (57.9 percent) from three for the game. MSU cut the lead to just three points late, but could never draw even. The rest is history.

Another ironic part of the story is that it was never clear to me why MSU was paired with MTSU in the first place. As the top ranked No. 2 seed, based on the s-curve, MSU should have naturally been paired with the weakest No. 15 seed. In 2016, MTSU was actually the strongest of the No. 15 seeds, based on the committee’s published seed list.

The exact placement of the No. 15 seeds is often driven by geography, and in this case the weakest No. 15 seed was Weber State. However, Weber State was matched against Xavier in the first round and both this game and the MSU-MTSU both took place in the same pod in St. Louis. Xavier was actually ranked as the weakest No. 2 seed. MSU and Xavier, by basic seeding principles, should have traded opponents. If I even meet Hollis in person, I will ask him why this decision was made.

Had MSU made it past MTSU there is no guarantee that they would have won the Title or would have even made it past No. 10 Syracuse in the second round. MSU would have projected as a nine-point favorite in that game, but Izzo teams have always struggled with Boeheim’s zone. Then again, with so many three-point snipers on the team, I tend to think Valentine and crew would have gotten the job done.

In the Sweet Sixteen, MSU would have next faced No. 11 Gonzaga, where MSU would have been a seven-point favorite. Then, MSU would have once again faced Tony Bennett and No. 1 seed Virginia. I project that MSU would have been slightly favored in this game too. In reality, UVA blew a 15-point lead over Syracuse with 10 minutes to play. Is there any way that the Cavaliers would have not blown it against MSU as well? I don’t think so.

Had MSU made the Final Four in 2016, the path would have been a tough one. In the National Semifinals, they would have faced No. 1 seed North Carolina and then No. 2 seed (and eventual Champions) Villanova in the Finals. Based on the pre-tournament Kenpom numbers, MSU would have been a narrow favorite in both contests. In reality, it is hard to say, as both UNC and Villanova played very well in March.

While we will never know if MSU would have earned Izzo his second title in 2016 had the Middle Tennessee State debacle not happened, based on my math, this was his most likely chance since at least 2001.

Thus ends the lesson for today. As always, stay safe, stay home, wash your hands, and Go Green.