On Tuesday night, Michigan State fans saw something that we have not seen in several years. With a ranked and rugged Rutgers squad in town, and with the Spartans staring with a 1-3 conference record, the game felt as close to a “must win” contest as any early January game has felt in quite some time in these parts. The Spartans simply could not afford to fall to 1-4.
Fortunately, once the game tipped-off, Michigan State fans saw something that we have not seen in several weeks: a tough, gritty commitment to defense and rebounding, the foundational principles of head coach Tom Izzo’s program. Even though the Spartans turned the ball over 18 times, and even though Joey Hauer and Rocket Watts both scored well below their averages, MSU still managed to win by 23 points.
Hopefully, this will serve as a valuable lesson for the rest of the season. Even if only one or two of MSU’s potential stars is playing well, the Spartans can still dominate simply with defense and rebounding. While the Spartans are still below .500 in conference play, they will have a chance to get to 3-3 in tonight game with the Purdue Boilermakers steaming into town. For now, MSU seems to be back on track. Another dominant performance would help to solidify that position.
While we await tonight’s tip-off, let’s take a quick look at the updated Big Ten odds to see how much Tuesday’s win improved Michigan State’s prospects.
Current Standings and Odds Update
As usual, here are the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of 01/08/2021
The Spartans’ win over the Scarlet Knights improved both MSU’s overall Kenpom efficiency (from around 15.5 to now over 17) and overall position in the standings. The Spartans remain at zero in the “plus/minus” category (road wins minus home loses) and are still one of the less lucky teams in the conference at -0.60.
At the top of the standings there are four teams that have achieved a certain level of separation from the rest of the pack. Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin are all now ranked in the Kenpom top-10 and all have at least a two-game lead over the pack of teams tied for fifth place. Three of those teams now have two road wins, and first place team Michigan is still one of the “luckiest” teams in the conference at +1.06.
Table 2 below shows the updated Big Ten win distribution matrix as of Jan. 8.
The Spartans have moved up in this table as well and are now in 10th place in expected wins with a value of 8.5. The most likely final record for the Spartans is still 8-12, but it is trending very closely to 9-11, if all teams in the conference continue to play at the same level that Kenpom is measuring them to by playing at right now. The math suggests that MSU’s current odds to get to 10-10 are now 32 percent, which is a big step up from the last update, when the odds were below 20 percent.
Table 3 below gives the updated odds for each team to win the Big Ten regular season title.
Michigan has now taken over the top spot for the first time this season with just over a one-third chance to win or share the Big Ten title. That said, Wisconsin and especially Illinois and Iowa are right on the heels of the Wolverines. As of now, the math also suggests that the eventual Big Ten champion(s) will likely have a record of 16-4 or better (77 percent odds).
If that figure is correct, it suggests that MSU would need to finish the season with just one more loss, most likely, in order to win a fourth consecutive Big Ten title. Clearly, this is a long shot and I currently estimate the Spartans’ title odds at only 0.22 percent (about 1-in-450). This is still terrible, but it is at least slightly better than the last update.
Strength of Schedule Update
Figure 1 below gives the updated overall strengths of schedule for all 14 Big Ten schools.
The Illini have now edged ahead of Purdue for the easiest overall schedule in the conference by a hair. It should also be noted that the four top teams in the conference all grade out to have four of the five easiest schedules overall, but this at least partially due to the fact that these teams do not have to play themselves. That said, of the contenders, it is true that Illinois has the easiest current path while Iowa’s is the most challenging. MSU’s schedule strength 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, Purdue has the easiest remaining schedule, while contenders Illinois and Iowa have a relatively lighter load in the remaining games. Michigan and Wisconsin, however, have two of the five most difficult schedules remaining. An average Power Five team (with a Kenpom efficiency margin of 19.0) would not be expected to go .500 with either of those teams’ remaining Big Ten schedules.
Unfortunately, MSU’s remaining schedule is in that same range. So, if MSU is to get to 10-10 or better in the league, the Spartans need to either play better (like an above average power five team, which the Spartans certainly should be) or get luckier (and win more toss-up games than they lose).
Big Ten Tournament Projection
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 36 total Big Ten games have been played (25.7 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.
As of now, the top four teams in the conference all have very good odds to secure the coveted double byes in the Big Ten Tournament. That said, there is still a lot of time for teams like Minnesota, Rutgers, Purdue, Indiana or Ohio State to jump up into the top four. All of these teams have between a 10 and 17 percent chance to skip the first two rounds in Indianapolis.
As for MSU, the most likely tournament seed is now projected to be No. 10, which is a big deal. This would allow the Spartans to avoid the first round of games on Wednesday night in Indianapolis and finishing in the top-10 of the conference is a likely cut off point for making the NCAA tournament this year. MSU’s odds to avoid the bottom four slots I now project to be 60 percent and the odds to get a double bye are now at 4.4 percent, which is a major improvement.
That said, if the currently projected favorites win all remaining games, the Spartans would finish a bit worse in the standings and only claim the No. 12 seed.
Also, I should note that a total of three Big Ten games so far have been postponed due to COVID issues. So far, the conference in implying that these games will be made up eventually, and I am making that same assumption in my calculations.
MSU’s Current Position and Upcoming Schedule
Following MSU’s win over Rutgers, 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.
MSU current position on the chart moved straight up, signifying a major improvement in defensive play during the Rutgers game. The offensive efficiency has remained relatively constant over the last few weeks and is still only borderline for a true championship level-team. MSU is technically in the blue “championship zone,” but no team has won the National Title in the Kenpom era without entering the tournament with at least an efficiency margin of 19.
Obviously, MSU still have some work to do, but as the green oval indicates, an improvement in both offensive and defensive efficiency to a level similar to the 2010 Final Four team (for example) is certainly within the range of normal movement this far from Selection Sunday. MSU seemed close to rock bottom a week or so ago, so it seems reasonable that Coach Izzo will continue to prod this team in the right direction such that they can still make some noise in March.
As for the remaining schedule, Figure 4 below summarizes the updated odds for all of MSU’s remaining regular season games.
The good news is that MSU’s win over Rutgers and the resulting bump in Kenpom efficiency has nudged up the odds for several of MSU’s remaining games. Specifically, the upcoming home game with Indiana now projects to be a win, more likely than not, and the late February games versus Ohio State and at Maryland are now very close to the 50 percent line.
The bad news is that the most likely single scenario (if the projected favored team wins) still has MSU finishing at only 6-14. In order to do better than that, the Spartans will need to win most or all of the games now considered to be near toss-ups and then also pick up a few upsets.
For the point of view of expected wins, the Green and White are expected to win about two of the next five games. The most likely are tonight’s game with Purdue and the home game on Jan. 17 against Indiana. In order to really get back on track, MSU needs to win both of these games and then steal at least one additional win at Iowa, at Rutgers, or when Illinois comes to visit Breslin on Jan. 23. That would put MSU at 5-5 or better at the conference midway point.
The expected win total for the next four games is also almost exactly two. So, at the very least MSU needs to beat Nebraska and Penn State at home, as expected. If the Spartans can also steal a win at Ohio State and/or at Michigan, MSU would be at least over .500 heading into the tough final stretch.
Right now, none of MSU’s final six games are projecting as wins, but the expected value calculations suggests that MSU will likely win two-to-three of these games. As mentioned above, the road game at Maryland and home game versus Ohio State are the most likely wins. Those two wins could get MSU up to nine or 10 wins.
At that point, the MSU’s season will likely hinge on the results of those other four games: the home games with Iowa and Michigan and the road games at Purdue and Indiana. Those games are all winnable, but they are also all “losable.”
If Coach Izzo has the team oiled up and ready for March, it is not a stretch to imagine MSU winning the majority of those games and finishing win something like 14 wins. This seems like the likely ceiling for the team, based on the rough start. That said, this all assumes that the Spartans’ continue to show progress and continue to play with the same energy, focus, and defensive prowess that they displayed against Rutgers. If not, this team will struggle just to get to .500.
Next up is tonight’s game with Purdue, and it is time to show the world that MSU is, in fact, back on track. If the Spartans slip up again, the season will once again be derailed. That’s all for now. Until next time, enjoy and Go State, beat the Boilers!