Happy New Year, Spartans fans! At long last, that festering cesspool of a year that we called 2020 is finally over. It’s a new month. It’s a new year. Here’s to hoping that things are starting to move in the right direction, in more ways than one.
As for MSU basketball, when we last checked in with the Spartans, they were 0-2 following a fairly solid performance against Wisconsin. But, as we all know, the Spartans were blown out in rather embarrassing fashion in Minneapolis and are now 0-3. It was one of the poorest shooting nights that I can remember and MSU’s performance I can only describe as “listless.”
I personally thought that the fire-and-brimstone version of Tom Izzo would be on display following the loss...but it wasn’t. Coach Izzo is obviously frustrated and disappointed, but he is still using the “kinder, gentler” approach with this team. While that is honestly frustrating to see as a fan, Izzo is a master of psychology. He knows this team and this game far better than anyone else on the planet. If anyone can get this team back on track, it’s Coach Izzo. Period.
Right now, MSU is on a three-game losing streak. That’s bad. But, it is also not that unusual. Consider the following past seasons:
- Last year, MSU had a three-game skid in early February (and also lost four-out-of-five) and still won the Big Ten.
- 2019: MSU lost three games in a row in late January and early February, still won the Big Ten and made the Final Four.
- 2017: MSU lost three games in a row (and four-out-of-five), and wound up a No. 9 seed.
- 2016: MSU lost three games in a row and wound up a No. 2 seed (but we won’t talk about how that Tournament went...)
- 2014: MSU did not lose three in a row, but did drop four-of-six down the stretch and yet still won the Big Ten Tournament and made the Region Final.
- 2013: MSU had a three-game losing streak, yet earned a No. 3 seed and made the Sweet 16
- 2011: That team lost six-of-eight in Big Ten play, yet at least made it to .500.
- 2010: MSU had a three-game losing streak, yet made the Final Four.
- 2008: MSU lost three-out-of-four in one stretch, but wound up making the Sweet 16.
- 2007: That team lost four in a row but at least made it to .500.
- 2006: That team lost five of seven late to drop to .500 and then flamed out to George Mason in the tournament.
- 2003: MSU lost three in a row early in Big Ten play (including a 2-4 start), then had another stretch with a 1-3 record, yet finished over .500 and advanced to a Regional Final.
- 2002: MSU opened Big Ten play 0-3 as well, but finished 10-6.
Over the past 19 seasons, Michigan State has had a similar or worse stretch in Big Ten play 13 total times. In eight of those seasons, MSU wound up having a solid to very good finish. In the other five seasons (2002, 2006, 2007, 2011, and 2017) MSU at least managed to get to .500 and earn a tournament bid.
If we consider Izzo’s track record since 2007, Coach managed to successfully “salvage” the season seven-out-of-nine times when a similar rough patch was encountered. Furthermore, if consider the recent years not in the list above, they also all ended with some level of major success: 2009 (Final Four), 2012 (Big Ten Title and No. 1 seed), 2015 (Final Four), and 2018 (Big Ten Title).
That all said, it is a strange year and a strange season. The Big Ten is very strong from top to bottom. It is certainly possible that the 2020-21 season will end similarly to the 2011 or 2017 season...or worse. But, I am a numbers guy and an optimist so at the end of the day, am I going to go with the proven track record of Izzo that has eight more Final Fours than any of the hand-wringers out there. It still seems like a good bet to me, despite what the numbers below are about to tell us.
Current Standings and Odds Update
Below I present the updated enhanced Big Ten standings, as of Jan. 1, 2021. MSU is at 0-3, but at least the Spartans have some company in the basement in Penn State and Nebraska. Notably, MSU is currently the “most unlucky” team in the conference. Based on MSU’s current Kenpom ranking, the Spartans should have won 1.13 games out of the first three. Meanwhile, Northwestern (+1.57), Rutgers (+0.97), and Michigan (+0.81) rank as the “most lucky.”
Table 2 below shows the current Big Ten win matrix as of the first day of 2021.
Michigan State’s expected win total has now dropped to 7.21, which is now second to last in the conference. As such, the mostly likely final Big Ten record for MSU is now 7-13. My math now suggests that the Spartans’ odds to make it to 10-10 or better are now at only 16.8 percent.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s loss to Maryland has made the overall Big Ten race much more competitive. Wisconsin still has the best overall expected win total (13.35), but Illinois (13.28), Iowa (13.05), and Michigan (12.96) are right in the hunt. As for the regular season champions odds, those are shown below in Table 3. As for the regular season champions odds, those are shown below in Table 3.
Consistent with the expected win totals above, Wisconsin (29.3 percent), Illinois (26.7 percent), Iowa (24.9 percent), and Michigan (24.4 percent) have the best odds to win or share the regular season title. As for MSU, the current Big Ten odds are bleak, to say the least, but they are non-zero...barely. I currently estimate the odds to be 0.20 percent or about 1-in-500.
Strength of Schedule Update
The Big Ten strengths of schedule have not changed much, but I am showing the updated Figure below. Purdue, Illinois, and Wisconsin still own the easiest overall schedule, while MSU’s schedule is now grading out to be the fifth most difficult. Northwestern still has a significantly harder schedule than the rest of the conference.
If I only consider the remaining schedule, normalized to a percentage by dividing by the remaining games, that data is shown below in Figure 2.
Purdue and Illinois both have relatively softer remaining schedules, but Maryland and Minnesota are also appearing in the top four. In this case, MSU’s remaining schedule is still in the middle of the pack, while Wisconsin’s remaining schedule is now grading out to be the fourth most difficult.
Big Ten Tournament Projection
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 25 total Big Ten games have been played and the teams have not played the same number of games. That said, it is possible even now to make projections about the Big Ten tournament based on the simulated results. Table 4 below provides that update.
As expected, the results are bleak for Spartans fans, as MSU is currently projecting as the No. 13 seed based on both the overall odds and the most likely single scenario where all of the favorites win. The really bad news (as we will see below) is that this scenario has MSU finishing at only 4-16 in Big Ten play and in a tie with Nebraska for last place. At this point, MSU projects to only have a 34 percent chance to avoid the first day of games in Indianapolis.
MSU’s Current Position and Upcoming Schedule
Following MSU’s loss to Minnesota, I have updated the Kenpom scatter plot to show the current position of MSU relative to past MSU teams, previous champions, and the current field of national contenders.
As expected, MSU’s offensive efficiency took a major hit in Minneapolis, and the Spartans have now fallen completely out of the “Championship Zone.” MSU’s current profile is now very similar to both the 2011 team and especially the 2017 teams, which of course happen to be exactly the two teams that I mentioned above which did not recover significantly from the Big Ten losing streaks similar to the one facing the Spartans now.
As for the remaining Spartan schedule, Figure 4 shows the projected win probabilities for all of MSU’s remaining games.
As mentioned above, MSU is currently only projected to be a favorite in four of the remaining games: the two games against Nebraska, and the home games versus Purdue and Penn State.
That said, there are still three games remaining with win percentages projected to be over 40 percent (home games against Rutgers, Indiana, and Ohio State) and six more games with projected win percentages over 30 percent (home games against Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa and road games against Purdue, Indiana, and Maryland)
If MSU can right the ship (as Izzo usually does) these are the games that are likely to be the most winnable, and there are 13 of them. MSU clearly has the ability to play a lot better than the last few games have shown. It is certainly possible that MSU can move towards the upper right hand corner in Figure 3.
Simply moving back up the edge of the current green oval (with an efficiency margin near +20) would move the Spartans back into the top half of the Big Ten and would push many of the games in the “close loss” category back into the “close win” category. MSU would still need to actually win those toss-up games, but as Table 1 suggests, the Green and White seem to be do for some positive “luck.”
Once again, this is a pretty depressing update. But, things can certainly change quickly. I could easily this team emerging from a stretch of three or four practice suddenly looking much better. Within the span of a week or two, this team might look like the team that we all saw whip Norte Dame and Duke just a few weeks back. If that improvement started this week, MSU might just be able to weasel back in the Big Ten race.
Then again, this team might continue to struggle, and we could see an ending much closer to that of the 2011 season, where Coach Izzo honestly seemed like he just wanted to hit the reset button by mid-February and be done with that group of guys. But, that type of ending is more the exception than the rule. Either way, Coach Izzo has his work cut out for him. But, as stated above, I believe that there is no better person in the world to figure this out.
That is all for today. As always, enjoy, and Go State, Beat the Huskers!