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Big Ten Hoops Odds Update (Reboot)

With Michigan State on the verge of staring play again, it’s time to check in on the Big Ten race and MSU’s place in it.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

It has now been 19 days since the Michigan State Spartans took the court. While Michigan State’s position in the standings has not changed, there has certainly been a lot of action elsewhere in the Big Ten. With everything seemingly on track for the Spartans to return to action on Thursday night at Rutgers, it is once again time to check the overall status of the Big Ten race.

Current Standings and Odds Update

As usual, here are the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of Jan. 27, 2021.

Table 1: Updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of 01/27/2021

The big change since the last update was that Iowa had a miserable second half against Indiana last week, resulting in the second conference loss of the season for the Hawkeyes. Meanwhile, the Michigan Wolverines picked up another win or two and now have a game-and-a-half lead in the standings.

It is also notable that Michigan now also leads the conference in the plus/minus rating, which is the total number of road wins minus the number of home losses. That said, Michigan also continues to have a lead in the “luck” metric relative to the other major contenders. The luck metric is summarized below in Figure 2 for all Big Ten teams.

Figure 1: Summary of the luck metric for all Big Ten teams as of 01/26/2021

Despite losing to Michigan this week, Purdue remains the “luckiest” Big Ten team. The Boilermakers’ win total is a full game-and-a-half higher than expected based on their Kenpom efficiency rating. It is also notable that while Michigan is also quite lucky, the other main contenders (Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio State) are all unlucky or neutral at best. The Spartans remain the least lucky team in the conference.

Table 2 below gives the updated Big Ten win matrix.

Table 2: Big Ten win distribution matrix as of 01/27/2021, assuming all postponed games are made up.

This table now comes with the huge caveat that is assumes all postponed games will eventually be made up, which seems increasingly unlikely. That said, the Big Ten race is now showing a bit more separation at the top, with Michigan projected with over a 1.5 game advantage in expected wins over second-place Iowa, who in turn has a one-game advantage over third-place Illinois.

Third place overall is suddenly rather competitive as Illinois, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Ohio State are all within one game of each other in expected value. As for Michigan State, the Spartans’ expected win total of 7.4 has now dropped to MSU to 12th place overall.

Table 3 below shows the updated odds for the Big Ten regular season crown, once again assuming that all games are eventually played.

Table 3: Odds for each team to win or share the Big Ten regular season title, as of 01/26/2021

As usual, the Big Ten odds mirror the expected win totals shown in Table 2. Specifically, the results of the past week have pushed Michigan’s title odds up to 75 percent, while Iowa is hanging back in second place at 28 percent. No other team currently has odds over 10 percent. As for MSU, the odds to somehow make it back to first place sit at 1-in-4,000.

Currently, the most likely final record of the eventual Big Ten champion(s) is 16-4. That said, there is now almost a 40 percent chance that 17-3 (assuming all games are played) would be needed to hang a banner.

Strength of Schedule Update

Figure 2 below gives the updated overall strengths of schedule for all 14 Big Ten schools.

Figure 2: Updated Big Ten strengths of schedule as of 01/26/2021

Illinois retains the easiest overall Big Ten schedule, with Michigan close behind. Michigan State’s schedule is still the fifth most difficult in the league, 0.75 wins harder than Illinois’ and Michigan’s schedules.

Figure 3 below shows the strength of each teams’ remaining schedule, normalized to a percentage by the number of remaining games for each team.

Figure 3: Relative strengths of remaining schedules as of 01/27/2021

Purdue and Maryland now can claim the easiest remaining conference path, which is a big reason why Purdue and Maryland’s expected win totals are relatively high, based on each team’s current Kenpom ranking. Unfortunately, MSU’s remaining schedule is the second hardest overall, with only Indiana having a slightly tougher road.

Big Ten Tournament Projection

If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 60 total Big Ten games have been played (43 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.

Table 4: Big Ten Tournament seeding odds as of 01/26/2021

For a several weeks now, the top four projected seeds in the Big Ten Tournament have held steady with Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin in the top four spots, although the order has fluctuated significantly. From a probability point of view, these are still the top four teams.

However, in the single case of highest probability where all of the favorite teams win, there is actually a three-way tie between Illinois, Wisconsin, and Ohio State. In this scenario, the Buckeyes win the tie-breaker to earn the No. 3 seed, while the Illini drop to the No. 5 seed.

As for MSU, the Spartans have dropped below Penn State and now sit at No. 12 overall in seeding odds. If all the favorites win, MSU drops below Northwestern to the No. 13 seed. As I stated in my previous analysis of MSU’s NCAA Tournament odds, I think that a key will be to finish with at least the No. 10 seed. Right now, those odds project at only 37 percent.

Another way to look at this is that for Michigan State to finish with at least the No. 10 seed, there are four other teams that MSU needs to beat out. The Spartans still have a clear Kenpom edge over Northwestern and Nebraska. Based on Table 4, Penn State is the next most likely team to beat out. But, MSU would need to pass at least one more team.

Based on the Big Ten Tournament seeding matrix in Table 4, Rutgers is now the most likely next team for MSU to pass. If the Spartans can beat Rutgers this week, that would obviously help a lot. But, as both Table 4 and Table 2 suggest, both Indiana and Maryland are possibilities and Minnesota could also fall into the bottom four. If one of those teams were to hit a late season slump, MSU might benefit.

Michigan State’s Current Position and Upcoming Schedule

Michigan State has not played a game since the last update, but I have updated the Kenpom scatter plot to show the current position of the Spartans relative to past MSU teams, previous champions, and the current field of national contenders.

Figure 4: Kenpom efficiency scatter plot as of 01/26/2021

MSU continues to fall outside of the blue “championship zone.” In addition, as we approach Selection Sunday, the green oval which defines the uncertainty in MSU’s likely final efficiency metrics continues to shrink. That said, this oval was derived assuming a normal schedule where the Spartans would have played around 20 games by now instead of just 12. Either way, the window of opportunity for this team to show improvement is starting to close.

Finally, Figure 5 below summarizes the projected odds for MSU in all of the remaining conference games. This time, I have pushed all of the postponed games to the end of the schedule, in an attempt to keep things tidy. In addition, I have adjusted the schedule to reflect the new date for the game at Iowa and the adjusted date of the Nebraska game.

Figure 5: Projected odds for MSU’s remaining games.

I have also added one additional piece of information to the Figure, which is the current “quad” of each game, based on the newish NET ranking system used by the selection committee.

Basically, each game that a team plays is assigned to one of four groups depending on the estimated difficulty of each game. The difficulty is adjusted for the location. Specifically, a “quad one” game would be any home game against a team ranked in the NET top 30. If the game is played at a neutral site, the opponent only has to be in the top 50. For road games, the opponent only has to be in the top 75 to be in “quad one.” A similar sliding scale is used for quad two, three, and four games.

The selection committee will use a team’s record against quad one opponents in both the selection of at-large teams and in seeding. So far, MSU has only played two “quad one” games: versus Wisconsin and at Minnesota. MSU lost both of those games. However, 11 of MSU’s remaining 14 games are currently categorized as “Q1” games.

On first glance, this may seem daunting, as Figure 5 also suggests that Michigan State will only be favored in two of the remaining games. But, the good news is that MSU has a large number of chances to pick up high quality wins. Even in the Spartans were to only finish at 8-12, MSU would need to pick up at least three Q1 wins, which would be helpful in the eyes of the selection committee.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I am glad that we will finally be able to watch Michigan State play against on Thursday night. Hopefully, the team will emerge from its three-week long COVID “vacation” rested and focused. Hopefully the way that the Purdue game ended left them with a bad taste in its mouth that will fuel a level of preparation and effort that will carry them into February and allow them to take their game to the next level.

If MSU instead shows a lot of rust and drops another game, it could be a rough couple of week. As for me, I remain as always, optimistic. That is all for now, until next time, enjoy and Go State, beat Rutgers!