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Hoops Analysis: Do the Spartans Have “Bubble Trouble?”

Based on Michigan State’s current performance to date, most bracketologists have the Spartans squarely on the bubble. I suggest a few metrics to track to see if MSU will stay there.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional Practice Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

As we approach the end of January, a lot of college basketball discussion has turned to the NCAA Tournament. The question on everyone’s mind right now is whether the NCAA Tournament is going to happen at all this year. As for now, the plan remains in place to the play the entire tournament in the state of Indiana using (more or less) the normal schedule.

However, as COVID-based pauses and cancelled or postponed games continue to mount, it is harder and harder to believe that this plan is going to actually work. That said, I do believe that the NCAA Tournament will happen this year, in some form. Will it contain 68 teams and will it actually take place in March? Those points, I believe, are still unclear.

As for Michigan State fans, the big question is whether or not the Spartans are going to be a part of the Big Dance at all this year. Right now, in the midst of a now three-week pause, Michigan State seems to be squarely on the bubble. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has MSU as one of the last teams in. In contrast, CBS’s Jerry Palm has MSU as one of the last team’s out.

A comprehensive list of bracket projections is compiled on the Bracket Project website. According the latest update, MSU appears in 37 of the 75 published brackets (49.3 percent). In total, this data all suggests the same thing: MSU is currently squarely on the bubble.

If things go to plan on Thursday, MSU will take the court once again at Rutgers. It is hard to say how the Spartans will look after almost three weeks off. Will the team be rested or rusty? We will all find out together. Either way, based on the current situation, if the Spartans can improve their play in their remaining games, MSU will likely make the tournament. If they do not, then they probably won’t.

But, as we approach Selection Sunday, what are some of the signs that MSU fans can look toward to judge if we will be able to breathe easy or if we will be biting our nails on Selection Sunday? One metric to look for I have already mentioned above: the data from the Bracket Project. In addition, I believe that there are three other factors that we can track for the remainder of the season.

Big Ten Record

In a normal year, it is pretty easy to look at team’s final record overall as well as the final conference record to decide if that team in going to make the NCAA Tournament or not. As a very general rule, a Power Five team with at least 20 wins and a .500 record in conference play is usually in good shape. In 2021, the total number of wins is essentially irrelevant, but the conference record will certainly be a factor.

In years when the Big Ten is considered strong (like this year) a .500 conference record is a virtual guarantee for an at-large bid. In other years this is sometimes not the case. For example, Nebraska went 13-5 in 2018 and still wound up in the NIT. However, just as recently as 2019, both Minnesota (9-11 in conference play) and Ohio State (8-12) made the Tournament with losing conference records.

Just to give a few non-Big Ten examples, in 2019 Oklahoma went 7-11 in Big 12 play and still made the Tournament as a No. 9 seed. In 2018, Texas and Oklahoma earned bids with 8-10 conference records. Kansas State did the same thing in 2017 with an 8-10 record. In 2015, Texas and Oklahoma State also made it in at 8-10. In each of those years, Kenpom had the Big 12 rated as the No. 1 overall conference.

With the Big Ten sitting in the No. 1 spot this year in Kenpom’s conference ranking, I would expect that any team that is within two games of .500 (or 8-12 with a full schedule) will get a serious look as a at-large bid. Michigan State needs to win about half of its remaining games to stay on this path. While my current calculations give MSU only a 13 percent chance to make it to 10-10, the odds to finish at at least 8-12 at at 46 percent right now.

I should also note that quality wins are certainly a factor, but I am not currently worried about this variable. MSU’s current NET rating is a concerning No. 84 and the Spartans’ “Quad One” record is at 0-3. However, by my count MSU has a total of 11 Quad One games left (including all seven road games and home games versus Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, and Iowa). So, for the Spartans to even get close to .500, some high quality wins will have to come along for the ride.

Big Ten Tournament

If MSU continue to flirt with the bubble for the rest of the regular season, the Big Ten Tournament is likely to be viewed as a bit of a tie-breaker. Right now, most brackets have nine or 10 Big Ten teams in the field. While the seed in the Big Ten Tournament does not officially matter in NCAA Tournament selection, it does help with the optics. In this case, it would be a tremendous benefit for MSU to enter the Big Ten Tournament as at least the No. 10 seed.

First off, this would strengthen the idea in the eyes of the committee that Michigan State is, in fact, a top-10 Big Ten team. Furthermore, it would increase the odds that MSU would get at least one more quality win. One thing is certain, and that is that bubble teams who lose in the first game of a conference tournament seem to often not get the benefit of the doubt on Selection Sunday. MSU may very likely need to win at least one game to stay on the positive side of the bubble.

Right now, I project Michigan State’s odds to get at least the No. 10 seed in the conference tournament to be only at 37 percent. If the Spartans do wind up playing on the Wednesday of the conference tournament, I think that two wins at least will be needed in order to go dancing.

Kenpom Rankings

While the committee does not officially use Kenpom efficiency data to evaluate or seed teams, it does provide a rich set of data that can give us hints as to the likelihood that a team like MSU will either make the tournament or not. In this case, I have some hard numbers to share.

I went back through Kenpom data back to 2011 when the tournament expanded to the current 68-team format. I tracked the final, pre-tournament rankings and adjusted efficiency margins for all non-conference champions and correlated those numbers to the odds that a team would make the tournament or not as an at-large team. The results are shown below in Figures 1 and 2.

Figure 1: Odds that a non-champion will be an at-large NCAA Tournament participant as a function of Kenpom ranking.
Figure 2: Odds that a non-champion will be an at-large NCAA Tournament participant as a function of adjusted efficiency margin.

The shape of the data in both Figures is essentially the same and tells the same basic story. Good teams, with a Kenpom ranking of at least 25 and an adjusted efficiency margin of at least 18.0, almost always make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team.

As the the overall ranking and efficiency margin drops, the odds that a team is an at-large selection also drops linearly. Once the adjusted efficiency margin drops to 10.0 and the ranking drops below 70, the odds approach zero.

In both figures, I included Michigan State’s current position, which is a No. 44 ranking and an adjusted efficiency margin of 16.3. In this case, the Kenpom data paints a slightly happier picture. Based on MSU’s ranking, the odds to make the tournament are 58 percent. If we instead only focus on the raw adjusted efficiency data, the odds climb to 74 percent.

I would argue that the reason the Kenpom data is more optimistic has to do with the fact that MSU has been a bit unlucky so far in Big Ten play. If the Kenpom efficiency data is a true estimate of how “good” MSU really is, the Spartans really should be 3-3 right now and not 2-4. If it weren’t for about 20 seconds of bad luck and bad execution against the Purdue Boilermakers, that is exactly where MSU would be right now.

In other words, Kenpom data suggest that the Spartans are likely to regress to the mean over the rest of the season and perhaps steal a win or two in the back half of the season. If this happens, then Michigan State will most likely find themselves on the positive side of the bubble on Selection Sunday, just as the data in Figures 1 and 2 suggest.

That is all for today. I will provide a new odds update on the full Big Ten picture prior to Michigan State’s game (fingers crossed) on Thursday at Rutgers. Going forward, I am planning to revisit the metrics discussed above as MSU plays more games and as Selection Sunday approaches (also, fingers crossed).

Until next time, enjoy, and Go State, beat Rutgers!