For those of us who have been Michigan State basketball fans for a while, we have experienced a lifetime worth of crazy finishes in the past 20 or 30 years. MSU has both won and lost on buzzer-beaters and other crazy late game situations. I recall watching Korie Lucious hitting the game-winner in the second round of the 2010 NCAA tournament which paved the way for Tom Izzo’s sixth Final Four. But, I also remember Kenny Anderson of Georgia Tech hitting a shot (after the buzzer) to knock Jud Heathcote’s Spartans out of the Sweet 16 in Steve Smith’s senior year of 1990, which very likely cost Heathcote a chance at his second Final Four, if not second title.
I could go on to list a dozen examples of Michigan State wins or loses in the final seconds of a game. Many of those wins were glorious and many of the losses were crushing. But, the lesson is essentially the same.
You win some. You lose some.
In general, the team that wins is the one that makes the most plays at the end of the game. Last Friday Purdue made those plays, and MSU did not. The Spartans threw away both a 17-point second half lead and several chances to put away the Boilermakers in the final seconds of the game. MSU needed to win this game. But, the team did not. Now, the train-wrecked Spartans are sitting at 2-4 in league play and seem to have more questions than answers. It feels like the season in now officially on the brink.
As we will see below, the current numbers are not kind to the Green and White. But, in my role of the Chief Optimism Officer of this fine website, I will offer a few reasons why things may not quite be as bad as they seem.
- Many factors that led to the loss to Purdue were bad luck. While it is often true that good teams create their own luck and bad teams don’t, MSU had this game won if it were not for missed free throws, a bad inbounds play, and some bad luck with the possession arrow. In the final seconds of the game, Kenpom estimated that Purdue had less than a four percent chance to win. Bad luck is likely to even out over a 20-game schedule.
- The defense is getting better. While it is easy to point to the complete failure on the offensive side of the ball in the second half, it was MSU’s improving defense that built the 17-point lead. Defense travels and if the Spartans can continue to be strong in this area, they will have a chance in every remaining game.
- MSU has played very well...in stretches. Despite the final scores, keep in mind that MSU at one point had a 28-point lead over Notre Dame, a 16-point lead over Duke, a nine-point lead over Wisconsin, a 17-point lead over Nebraska, a 25-point lead over Rutgers, and a 17-point lead over Purdue. The problem is maintaining that level of play for the full 40 minutes.
- Players like Rocket Watts, Gabe Brown, and Joey Hauser can play better. While Aaron Henry and Josh Langford have mostly been carrying the load over the past few games, several other players seem to be in a slump. It is unlikely that those slumps will continue much longer. MSU needs at least one (and hopefully more) additional player to step up and break out.
- Michigan State still has Tom Izzo. It is easy to question the coaching staff in areas such as player rotations, but at the end of the day, if you are reading this article and your name is not Mike Krzyzewski, John Wooden, Dean Smith, or Roy Williams, Izzo has a lot more Final Fours than you do. Coach Izzo knows what he is doing and if anyone can right the ship, it’s him. For better or worse, he has five full days to work in his lab to fix what is ailing the team.
Now that I have given you that little pep talk, let’s take a peek at what the math current says about MSU’s current situation.
Current Standings and Odds Update
As usual, here are the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of Jan. 11, 2021.
With the loss to Purdue the Spartans are once again two games below .500 and residing the bottom half of the conference. The fact that the loss came at home also drops MSU to -1 in the plus/minus metric (which is simply the number of road wins minus home loses).
The Green and White are also still last in the conference when it comes to “luck” at -1.10. Basically, even with MSU struggling and underachieving, the math suggests that the record should be 3-3 and not 2-4. The other teams currently in the “unlucky” category include Penn State (-0.88), Ohio State (-0.76), and Nebraska (-0.70). As for the lucky teams, Northwestern (+1.37), Michigan (+1.07), and Minnesota (+0.65) are at the head of the class.
Similar to the past few updates, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois are all established as the current top-four teams in the conference with a combined record of 19-4. The Illini were upset by Maryland last night, which does knock them back a half step from the top-three teams.
Table 2 below shows the updated Big Ten win distribution matrix as of Jan 11.
Following the win over Rutgers, the Spartans were clearly trending in a positive direction and at least getting to 10-10 seems reasonable. Today, MSU’s expected win total has dropped back down to 7.7, which is only slightly better than the total prior to the win over the Scarlet Knights. Basically, all of the gains made in that win were erased by the loss to Purdue. The odds that MSU finishes at 10-10 or better are now back at just 18 percent.
Table 3 below gives the updated odds for each team to win the Big Ten regular season title.
The Big Ten races is still most likely a four-team race between Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. But, Iowa (44 percent) and Michigan (39 percent) have gotten a little bit of separation from Wisconsin (24 percent) and Illinois (17 percent). The next most likely team to raise a banner is Ohio State, and the Buckeyes’ odds are only 1.5 percent. The math also suggest that the eventual Big Ten champs will finish with a record of 16-4 or better (73 percent odds).
MSU’s odds are still non-zero, but I need to show them using scientific notation. The odds work out to about 1-in-2,200. If MSU is somehow able to crawl back into the race, the most likely scenario is a multi-team tie where several schools finish at 14-6 and there is significant attrition at the top of the standings.
Strength of Schedule Update
Figure 1 below gives the updated overall strengths of schedule for all 14 Big Ten schools.
Overall, the strengths of schedule calculations are fairly stable. Illinois, Purdue, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa all still grade out with the easiest schedules, while MSU’s schedules is still the fifth most difficult.
Figure 2 below gives the updates strengths of schedule showing only remaining games, normalized to percentages.
In this case, the most notable change is that MSU now appears to have the most difficult remaining schedule in the entire Big Ten. An average power five team would only be expected to win 47 percent of MSU’s remaining 14 games. In other words, an average power five team (defined as a team with a Kenpom efficiency margin of 19.0) would be most likely to go 6-8 or 7-7 with MSU’s remaining schedule.
MSU is not playing up to that standard right now. So, in order to get to a record approaching 10-10, MSU needs to start playing a lot better and likely needs a bit of good fortune (such as an opposing team committing a late turnover or missing clutch free throws, just to throw out a random example).
It should also be noted that Maryland also has a relatively easy remaining schedule. The Terrapins are 2-5, but have wins now over both Illinois and Wisconsin. The Terps could wind up being a team that is competing with MSU for the last Big Ten bid to the NCAA tournament. It would definitely benefit the Spartans to stay ahead of Maryland in the standings, but the schedule is slanted against the Green and White in this case.
Big Ten Tournament Projection
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 41 total Big Ten games have been played (29 percent of the season) and the teams have not played the same number of games. That said, it is possible to make projections about the Big Ten tournament based on the simulated results. Table 4 below provides that update.
The overall simulation suggests that MSU is now right on the fence between the No. 11 seed and the No. 12 seed, with the No. 11 seed or better being slightly more likely (57 percent). In the scenario where every favored team wins, MSU winds up with the No. 13 seed. Woof.
MSU’s Current Position and Upcoming Schedule
Following MSU’s loss to Purdue, 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.
It should come as no surprise that Michigan State improved once again in defensive efficiency, but dropped in offensive efficiency. The only bright spot is that MSU’s overall efficiency did not change much as MSU was only a slight favorite going into the game, and only lost by a point.
Once again, the Spartans still have time to improve to a level of efficiency where good things have happened before (such as 2010). But, the Spartans cannot afford to lose too many more winnable games before the NCAA Tournament streak is in real jeopardy. I don’t think that we are quite there yet, but we are getting dangerously close.
As for the remaining schedule, Figure 4 below summarizes the updated odds for all of MSU’s remaining regular season games.
Unfortunately, the math now shows that the home game against Indiana is now slightly below the 50 percent line, which leaves only two games (the home games against Nebraska and Penn State) where MSU will be clearly favored. But, it also true that in a full 10 of MSU’s remaining 14 games, the point spread is predicted to the less than five points (roughly odds over 30 percent). In other words, there are still a lot of “winnable” games left on the schedule.
For better or worse, Michigan State’s next game at Iowa on Thursday night looks like the most difficult game left on the schedule, and MSU will have several days to prepare. As such, even if MSU loses, the Spartans’ performance will tell us a lot about the what to expect for the rest of the year.
If Michigan State gets blown out, it clearly will not be a good sign, but it is not the end of the world. If MSU can keep the game close, it would suggest that MSU is capable of winning basically any of the remaining games on the schedule. If MSU is somehow able to win, this next update in this series will have much more positive news to share.
For the first time in a while, Michigan State is playing in a game on Thursday where there is essentially nothing to lose, but a lot to gain. That can be a powerful combination for the underdog and a dangerous one for the home team that has a history of not playing defense. I am looking forward to seeing how the Spartans measure up.
That’s all for now. Until next time, enjoy and Go State, beat the Hawkeyes!