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Big Ten Hoops Update (Uncharted Territory)

Michigan State basketball has entered an area that we have never seen before under Tom Izzo. Will the Spartans be able to dig out of it? Let’s check the math.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that Michigan State basketball is finally back. The bad news is that that is the only good news. Since the last odds update, the Spartans have played and lost two road games to Rutgers and Ohio State, both in blowout fashion. The game at Rutgers was an absolute dumpster fire. The loss at Ohio State was merely bad. Does that, perhaps, count as progress? Maybe?

Either way, whether Michigan State has lost in the final seconds or lost by 30, the end result is that MSU is now 2-6 in conference play and the NCAA Tournament streak is officially in serious jeopardy. The Spartans are now four games under .500. No Tom Izzo team has ever been more than three games under .500.

MSU was 5-8 in late February of 1997, but rallied to win four of the final five games to get to 9-9 and at least earned an NIT bid. In the 2002 season, MSU started Big Ten play 0-3, but went 10-3 from there on and made the tournament as a No. 10 seed. Sunday’s loss puts Coach Izzo in uncharted territory.

I still believe that there is a good team in there somewhere. The Spartans showed me enough against Notre Dame, Duke, Rutgers (the first time), and the first half against Purdue to believe that this still can be a tournament team. But, a team can only take so many losses before a point of no return is reached. MSU is not yet to that point, but time is definitely running out, and as we will see, the schedule from here on out is not easy.

For now, all that I can do is report the numbers as they are. It’s not pretty right now, and it is not likely to get better on Tuesday night when Michigan State travels to Iowa. For better or for worse, grit your teeth and read on, if you dare.

Current Standings and Odds Update

As usual, here are the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of the final day of January, 2021.

Table 1: Enhanced Big Ten standings as of 2/1/2021

Based on both winning percentage and total wins, Michigan State is now second to last in conference play, only ahead of Nebraska. The Spartans are also still ahead of Northwestern in Kenpom, but even that gap is narrowing and of course MSU loses a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Wildcats. As for luck, MSU doesn’t have any of that either, as Figure 1 below shows.

Figure 1: Comparison of Big Ten “luck” (actual wins minus expected wins)

The updated Big Ten win matrix is shown below, followed by the Big Ten regular season championship matrix.

Table 2: Big Ten win distribution matrix as of 2/1/2021
Table 3: Odds for each Big Ten team to win or share the regular season title with a certain number of total wins

For the Big Ten race as a whole, Michigan is clearly in the driver’s seat with over a 75 percent chance to at least share the title and a two-game lead in the standings and in expected wins. Illinois and Iowa both also have a very reasonable shot at the title with odds both around 18 percent. After that, Purdue, Ohio State, and Wisconsin are long shots, but still in the race. Right now, there is almost a 70 percent chance that at least 16 wins will be needed to earn a share of the conference title.

It is notable that of the contenders, both Purdue and Michigan lead the conference in luck, while Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio State are all underwater in that category. If the results regress more to the mean (zero luck) in the second half of the season, the Big Ten race might become quite a bit more competitive.

As for the Spartans, the latest two losses have put a major dent in MSU’s numbers. The total number of expected wins is now under six wins and the projected odds to get to .500 are now at only 1.4 percent. The odds just to get to 8-12 have fallen to 15 percent.

Furthermore, the odds for MSU to win a Big Ten title are now officially at zero. I cannot say that it is mathematically impossible for MSU to win the Big Ten, but I can say that in 500,000 simulations of the remaining schedule, including cases where MSU is actually a lot better than the current efficiency data suggests, the Spartans failed to finish in first place even a single time.

Strength of Schedule Update

Figure 2 below gives the updated overall strengths of schedule for all 14 Big Ten schools, followed by the strengths of schedule for only the remaining conference games.

Figure 2: Big Ten strengths of schedule as of 02/02/2021
Figure 3: Big Ten strengths of remaining schedule as of 02/02/2021

Since the last update, the Wolverines have now taken over the top spot in easiest overall Big Ten schedule, with Illinois and Purdue right behind. Ironically, MSU’s nosedive and the fact that Michigan plays MSU twice is a big part of that move.

It is also notable that while Michigan’s overall schedule is light, the Wolverines have one of the harder remaining schedules in the conference. Michigan’s schedule to date is actually the easiest in the Big Ten and they have almost a full win worth of luck. It will be interesting to see if the Maize and Blue can finish strong, especially coming off from a two-week pause.

As for MSU, the Spartans now grade out with the second hardest overall schedule as well as the second hardest remaining schedule. The only silver lining is that there are plenty of opportunities to pick up high quality wins from here on out.

Big Ten Tournament Projection

If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 68 total Big Ten games have been played (48.6 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, assuming all postponed games are made up. Table 4 below provides that update.

Table 4: Big Ten Tournament seeding odds as of 02/01/2021

The Spartans have now fallen to second to last place in the Big Ten Tournament seed projection. As I have stated in the past, clawing back up to at least the No. 10 seed would be an important milestone to track as the season progresses. Right now, those odds are just slightly above 10 percent.

As the odds for the Spartans to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team drop, it is time to start thinking seriously about the possibility that the only way for MSU to go dancing will be to win the Big Ten Tournament.

To this end, I will now start to simulate the results of the Big Ten Tournament. For seeding, I will use the values shown above in the “best odds” column of Table 4, which are averages from the regular season simulation. The results of 200,000 Big Ten Tournament simulations are shown below in Table 5.

Table 5: Big Ten Tournament Odds as of 02/01/2021 using the “best odds” seed for each team

The good news is that MSU odds to win four games in four days and claim the Big Ten Tournament title are third to last and not second to last. The bad news is that those odds are less than one percent and closer to 1-in-460. In other words, I would not recommend pinning our hopes on the Big Ten Tournament saving the NCAA Tournament streak.

MSU’s Current Position and Upcoming Schedule

Following MSU’s losses at Rutgers and at Ohio State, 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.

Figure 4: Kempon efficiency scatter plot as of 02/01/2021

As expected, the Spartans’ offensive efficiency has taken a nosedive over the past two games and the 2021 Spartans now most resemble Coach Izzo’s last team that did not make the tournament (1997). The shrinking green circle that represents a typical level of uncertainty in efficiency this far from Selection Sunday in now fully outside of the blue “championship zone,” where the metrics of the past NCAA Champions reside.

The only silver lining in this case is that MSU’s defense continues to be at a respectable level. If MSU can catch fire shooting or find other ways to shore up the offense, then there might be a chance to salvage the season.

Based on all of the data presented so far, I would like to introduce a new feature this week which is my combined estimation of MSU’s odds to make the NCAA tournament. This dashboard of sorts compares the odds that MSU will meet certain goals (get within two games of .500, avoid the first day of the Big Ten Tournament, and/or win the Big Ten Tournament) or performance metrics (based on Kenpom). Taken together, these different factors should provide a reasonable estimation of the odds for MSU’s tournament streak to continue. Figure 5 below shows these odds.

Figure 5: MSU Tournament bubble dashboard

A few of these metrics have been covered above, including MSU odds to get to eight conference wins, or earn a top-10 seed or win the Big Ten Tournament. These current odds for MSU to make the NCAA Tournament are in the range of 10 to 15 percent.

However, as I outlined in a previous post, the odds to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team can also be extracted from historical Kenpom data. In this case, MSU’s odds are better and in the range of 20 to 45 percent. While it is tricky to put an exact figure on MSU’s current tournament odds, a simple average of these metrics suggest odds of roughly 25 percent.

Finally, Figure 6 below summarizes the projected odds for MSU in all of the remaining conference games.

Figure 6: Projected odds for MSU’s remaining schedule

Sadly, yet another game has moved into the projected underdog category, as the odds for MSU to even beat Penn State in the Breslin Center have dropped to below 50 percent. Only the home game versus Nebraska is projected to be a likely win at this point.

Tuesday night’s game at Iowa is unlikely to go well. It will be MSU’s third road game in a span of six days and even in late December when MSU was ranked in the top-five, this game looked like a probable loss.

From this view point, the trip to Iowa City has nothing but positive upside. Sure, MSU will very likely lose and most likely get blown out, but there is also a greater than 10 percent chance that the Spartans will actual find a way to win that game. If this were to somehow happen, the rest of the season would suddenly look much, much brighter.

That said, MSU is very likely headed for 2-7. After that, however, there is a chance that things will get better. First of all, Michigan State only has four road games left on the schedule compared to seven home games, if all games are eventually made up. While MSU is only 1-2 at home in conference play, the Spartans played well for long stretches in all three games. It is reasonable to project the Spartans will look quite a bit better at home than they have in the past few road games.

Second, after the Iowa game, the two following games against Nebraska and Penn State are both at home, winnable, and spaced out a bit. These are obviously both “must win” games and the time at home and in the practice gym should give Coach Izzo the valuable time needed to try to salvage things. It still may not work in 2021, but early February is usually when Coach Izzo starts to work his final magic. If it is going to happen at all this year, it needs to happen in the next two weeks.

Once the calendar hits Feb. 13, MSU will hopefully be no worse than 4-7 in conference play with five home games left and four road games. None of the games will be gimmes, but very few of them look like automatic losses either. If MSU can steal four wins out of those nine games, a final record of 8-12 is possible.

Right now the expected number of wins in that final stretch is 2.45. If MSU can improve their play and maybe, just maybe, get a little bit of luck for a change then I think four wins is doable. Where will those wins come? Based on Figure 6, beating Indiana at Breslin (assuming that it gets rescheduled) and Maryland on the road are the two most likely.

After that, the home game against Ohio State and the road games at Purdue and at Indiana all have similar odds. Can MSU steal a win in that group? Then, MSU has home games versus Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan. Those games all look tough, but can the Spartans steal a win in that group of games as well, especially with another month for Izzo to find a way to put the team back together? I certainly am not ruling that out.

So, while this is certainly a bit of an optimistic take on the Spartans’ stretch run, I don’t believe that it is a completely unreasonable one. We have seen all of these players perform at a much higher level than how they are performing right now. We have also seen Coach Izzo get a much less talented and experienced group of guys into the Big Dance and even into the win column. He has done it before, and he might just do it again.

Keep you chins up, Spartan fans, and keep the faith. Nobody said that this was going to be easy. This season still might very well end in tremendous disappointment. But, it also might turn on a dime in a positive direction. Only time will tell. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Hawkeyes.