The last time we checked on the current status of the Big Ten race and Michigan State’s season, the Spartans were coming off a heart-breaking last second loss to Purdue 11 days ago. Based on the original schedule, Michigan State should have played two games since that loss, at Iowa and versus Indiana at home. But, a COVID-19 outbreak in the Spartan locker room has forced the team to hit the pause button for now. The next scheduled game at home versus Illinois has also now been postponed.
At this point, there are still a lot of questions. Will those three missed games actually get made up? For now, all the talk seems to be that they will, but with nine total Big Ten games already postponed and with Nebraska also headed for a pause, the odds that all 140 conference games will be played before the Big Ten Tournament seems vanishingly small.
Once the MSU pause is over, what will the Spartans actually look like? Having a few days off to rest and practice might be a good thing for the Green and White. Tom Izzo is a legend due to his ability to tinker and tighten screws and find the right mix to get the maximum out of his teams. It doesn’t always work (for example in 2011), but his success rate is far better than his failure rate. It is certainly possible that this team emerges from the pause looking a lot more like the top-five national title contender that we thought that we had back in early December.
But, on the other hand, 19 days off feels like an eternity, especially if players like Josh Langford are sick and the team has not actually been able to practice as a group. This is truly uncharted territory in so many ways that even Izzo’s playbook might not the answer. This team might simply be who they are right now and the pause might actually make things worse. We really don’t know and all we can do is wait.
While we wait, Big Ten action is still taking place and eight more conference games are now into the history books. Let’s go through the data and see where things stand.
Current Standings and Odds Update
As usual, here are the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of 01/19/2021.
Minnesota’s win over Michigan on Saturday means that every Big Ten team now has at least one conference loss, and Iowa has now moved into a first-place tie with the Wolverines. Wisconsin is a game back, while Illinois, Ohio State, and Purdue are two games back in the loss column. Iowa also moved to +3 in the “plus/minus” category (measuring road wins minus home loses) which gives the Hawkeyes a leg up in the Big Ten race.
Purdue has now also taken the lead in the “luck” category, with a score of +1.26 wins over their expected number of wins. Northwestern and Minnesota are also above a full win in the luck category. Michigan came back to earth a bit, but are still the fourth luckiest team in the conference. In contrast, MSU’s luck (-1.10) is still bad, but not as bad as Penn State’s (-1.24).
The updated Big Ten win matrix is shown below in Table 2.
Iowa has now moved back into the top spot in the conference both in Kenpom’s ratings and in expected wins with almost a full game lead on the Wolverines. Wisconsin and Illinois are fading a bit at between 12 and 13 expected wins, while Purdue, Ohio State, and Minnesota round out the top-seven. MSU’s expected win total of 7.65 with a 17 percent chance to finish at 10-10 or better is essentially unchanged since the last update.
The updated Big Ten regular season odds, based as always on 500,000 Monte Carlo simulations of the season, including the constantly shrinking estimation of uncertainty, is shown below in Table 3.
As usual, the odds tend to mirror the expected win totals shown above in Table 2. Iowa now projects to have a 63 percent chance to win or share the Big Ten title, with Michigan in second place at 36 percent. The rest of the league is also seeing some stratification with Wisconsin’s odds at 13 percent, Illinois at seven percent, Ohio State and Purdue at close to three percent, and Minnesota at just one percent. MSU’s odds continue to be terrible (one in 2,600) but greater than Nebraska’s odds of zero. More specifically, the Huskers did not win the Big Ten in any of the 500,000 simulations.
Right now, it is still looking likely that the eventual Big Ten Champion will finish with a record of 16-4 or better (75 percent chance) but the odds for a 17-3 champion are approaching 50 percent. This all assumes that all Big Ten teams will still play the full 20-game schedule.
Strength of Schedule Update
Figure 1 below gives the updated overall strengths of schedule for all 14 Big Ten schools.
Once again there is not a lot of change here, but Purdue’s overall weak schedule seems to be the main story. It seems likely that the Boilermakers may wind up with a slightly better record and Big Ten Tournament seed than they perhaps deserve, based mostly on this factor. Also, I am keeping an eye on Maryland, as the Terrapins might wind up fighting MSU for the No. 10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which could wind up being a de facto dividing line between making the Big Dance or not.
Figure 2 below shows the strengths of schedule just for the remaining games in conference play.
Minnesota has now moved into the top spot with the easiest remaining schedule. Purdue and Maryland are not far behind. Ohio State, Michigan State, and Indiana all have very challenging remaining schedules relative to the rest of the league.
Big Ten Tournament Projection
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 49 total Big Ten games have been played (35 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 top four teams in the conference are stable and have achieved some level of separation from the rest of the pack. The next three teams (Purdue, Ohio State, and Minnesota) are in a bit of jumble for the No. 5 to No. 7 seeds. The next batch of teams (Rutgers, Indiana, and Maryland) are in a similar jumble for the No. 8 to No. 10 seeds.
Right now, MSU projects as the No. 11 seed, which I believe would be a problem for NCAA Tournament purposes if this position holds. That said, my math still suggests a 46 percent chance that the Spartans can avoid playing in the initial Wednesday round of the Big Ten Tournament. If MSU can improve in a manner similar to most Coach Izzo teams, then I suspect that this position will improve as March approaches.
MSU’s Current Position and Upcoming Schedule
MSU has not played a game since the last update, but 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.
The Spartans’ current position did change slightly as more data was collected and the efficiency metrics were adjusted based on the strengths of MSU’s opponents. But, the bottom line is that MSU continues to hover outside of the blue “contender zone” and in the region of the graph where other underachieving MSU teams have finished (such as the 2011 and 2017 teams).
I should also note that the total number of other teams entering the “contender zone” has increased significantly, as has the total efficiency margins of several teams. I now count a total of 22 teams in the contender zone. The most notable team not currently in the contender zone is Iowa...because “defense.”
Baylor and Gonzaga continue to look very strong with metrics as good as some of Tom Izzo’s best teams (notably the 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2019 teams). However, before you pre-populate your office pool bracket with the Bears and the Zags in the Final Four, I will note that both historical precedent and simulation results suggest that there is only about a 20 to 25 percent chance that both of the top two rated teams will survive until the final weekend.
As for MSU’s remaining schedule with projected odds, that update is shown here:
For simplicity, I have kept the Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois games on their originally scheduled dates with the assumption that these games will get played eventually. The main change from last time is that the postponed game with Indiana just moved once again over the 50 percent line and into the category of games where MSU is likely to be favored.
As for now, MSU projects to be favored in just three remaining games and has odds of over 35 percent in six additional games. If the Spartans can win all nine of those games, it would bring the final record up to 11-9. At this point, we should all consider that an accomplishment. Of course, if some of MSU’s more winnable games wind up not being rescheduled, that could also cause problems with MSU potentially earning enough wins to play in the Big Dance.
As for that list of “winnable” remaining games with projected odds over 35 percent, the next game up at Rutgers, on Jan. 28, now falls squarely in that category. At that point, MSU would have not played a game in almost three weeks. It is hard imagine what the Spartans are going to look like after such as long layoff. It could be good, and it also could be quite bad. Only time will tell.
That is all for now. Until next time, enjoy, wash your hand, wear you mask, and practice social distancing. Go State, Beat COVID-19...I mean Rutgers. Actually, let’s just go ahead and beat both, shall we?