I do not think that it is a stretch to say that the 2020-21 Michigan State basketball team is the most frustrating Tom Izzo team of all time. There have been times this year when the individuals that make up this team have played really well. There are times when they have avoided fouls and turnovers. There are times when they shot the ball well and made good decisions. There have been times when they have rebounded and played great defense.
Over the past week, there were additional signs that maybe the team was gaining some level of consistency. Josh Langford and Aaron Henry were starting to put together consecutive good games. Against Penn State, the big men had a good outing for the first time in a while. MSU had won two games in a row and had played well enough to almost steal a win at Iowa.
The Spartans even showed enough grit to win a close game against the Penn State Nittany Lions. There were signs that maybe, just maybe Coach Izzo might be able to coax yet another mid-February run out of these Spartans. Step by step, things seemed to be getting better, and MSU had a golden opportunity on Saturday to prove to the world that they were still a force to be reckoned with in Big Ten country.
Instead, MSU was lethargic and allowed the Hawkeye of Iowa to punk them by 30 points in their own gym. The Spartans took two steps forward, and then one giant step back.
When it comes to Michigan State sports, I am the eternal optimist, but even I am losing faith in this team. While I do believe that there is a potentially good team in that locker room somewhere, the student-athletes seem completely lost right now and they are running out of time to find themselves. I firmly believe that this team can play well enough to be a NCAA Tournament team, but it is harder and harder to believe that it will actually happen.
In times like these, it is easy to let our emotions get in the way of facts. For me, I believe that the cold hard numbers will give me a straight answer. I still may not like the answer that those numbers give me, but at least I can take comfort in the fact that I know where the numbers come from and that it is telling me a consistent and unbiased story. So, let’s take yet another stroll through the Big Ten odds and see if thing are really as bad as they feel.
Current Standings and Odds Update
As usual, here are the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as Feb. 14, 2021. Note that this entire analysis was completed prior to the slate of Big Ten games on Sunday afternoon.
The updated Big Ten win matrix and regular season championship matrix are both shown below in Tables 2 and 3.
In addition, my calculated luck metric (actual wins minus expected wins) is summarized below in Figure 1.
With the loss to Iowa, MSU now sits in a tie for 10th place in the conference with Penn State, who at least MSU now owns a tie-breaker against. Unfortunately, however, MSU’s expected win total is now right around six, while teams with Maryland and Penn State are expected to finish with closer to eight wins, assuming the all games are made up.
From the standpoint of both expected wins and Kenpom efficiencies, MSU is only clearly ahead of Northwestern and Nebraska. I estimate MSU’s odds to win at least eight conference games to now be at only 11 percent, while the odds to get back to .500 are less than one percent.
From Figure 1, we can see that MSU’s luck metric is actually starting to even out a bit. The reason for this is two-fold. First, the Spartans actually won a near toss-up game against Penn State for the first time in a while. Second, MSU’s Kenpom efficiency continues to drop, which impacts the retroactive expected win calculation. In other words, it now appears that the reason MSU lost some of the previous games was due more to the fact that MSU is just not very good as opposed to not very lucky.
As for the overall Big Ten race, coming into Sunday, Michigan remains in the driver’s seat with over a 70 percent chance to at least tie for the title with Illinois (33 percent) and Ohio State (20 percent) as the most viable other contenders. The most likely record of the eventual first place team(s) is 16-4, but this assumes Michigan will actually make up all of its postponed games, which the Wolverines clearly have no interest in doing.
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 considering the games played as of the morning of Feb. 14 in Figure 3, and then the strengths of schedule for all remaining Big Ten contests in Figure 4.
MSU still has one of the most difficult overall schedules in the conference and one of the most difficult remaining schedules. An average power five team would be expected to win less than 40 percent of MSU’s remaining scheduled games. In contrast, an average power five conference playing Maryland’s remaining schedule (a team that MSU is competing with for Big Ten Tournament seeding purposes) would be expected to win over 65 percent of their remaining games. Not great.
The only other notable change is that the strength of MSU’s completed schedule is now more in the middle of the pack, as opposed to among the easiest.
Big Ten Tournament Projection
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 89 total Big Ten games have been played (63 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.
MSU continues to be stuck in the bottom four of the conference with only a 10 percent change of avoiding the opening round game in Indianapolis. Right now, just staying ahead of Northwestern for the No. 12 seed seems to be the biggest challenge.
As for the results of the Big Ten Tournament itself, Table 5 below gives the results of the latest simulation, using the probability-based projected seeds (from the “best odds” column in Table 4) as opposed to the seeds in the scenario where all of the favorite teams win.
As we can see, if the situation in East Lansing does not improve significantly, the odds that MSU will rise up and win the Big Ten Tournament is vanishingly small at roughly 1-in-1,250.
MSU’s Current Position and Remaining Schedule
Following MSU’s win over Penn State and loss to Iowa, I have updated the Kenpom scatter plot to show the current position of Michigan State relative to past MSU teams, previous champions, and the current field of national contenders.
In my professional scientific opinion, based on the data shown in Figure 5, I can only describe Michigan State’s current position as “dire.” The Spartan’s offensive efficiency continues to be in free fall, and the overall position is so far from a range of competitiveness that it is hard to imagine this team improving enough to enjoy any sort of postseason. After the blowout loss to Iowa, this officially looks like the worst Tom Izzo team on record.
As for the field of possible National Title contenders, a total of 23 teams now appear in the blue “championship zone,” including five Big Ten teams, none of which are named Iowa. Note that Baylor and Gonzaga (whose metric are actually off scale) still are big favorites to cut down the nets in early April.
It should come as no surprise that MSU’s odds to earn an at large bid continue to slip. Figure 6 below shows the updated bubble dashboard, based on the four metrics that I am tracking: Kenpom efficiency margin and rank, the odds to finish at 8-12 or better, and the odds to win the Big Ten Tournament.
Based on the raw Kenpom efficiency margin, Michigan State may have as good as a roughly 30 percent chance to extend the streak. The other metrics are not quite as optimistic, and they are more likely correct. At this point, unless MSU can improve significantly, I think that there is only a 10 percent chance to make the NCAA Tournament.
This then brings us to the odds for MSU to win the remaining games on the schedule, which are shown below in Figure 7.
As expected, Michigan State is not projected to be favored in any of the remaining games. Furthermore, the odds to win each of those games continues to drop. The only games where MSU is projected to have over a 30 percent chance to win are the road game at Maryland and the home game versus Indiana, which has not even been officially rescheduled.
So, after all of that, here is where I see things. If Michigan State is going to find a way to get back into the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans are going to need to find a way to win at least half of their remaining games. The only way for MSU to do this is for the Spartans to somehow start playing A LOT better, or for MSU is simply get really lucky.
All of the math above takes both factors into account, but the odds for MSU to improve are offset by odds that things will actually get worse. So, in general, the roughly 10 percent NCAA Tournament odds are essentially the odds that MSU is lucky. If you believe that this team will get better, somehow, then the odds are better than that.
Either way, MSU almost certainly needs four more wins just to get into the conversation. The four most likely wins left on the schedule are the two games mentioned above and the next two games: road contests at Purdue and at Indiana. I hesitate to call any game a true “must-win,” but the next two games are perhaps as close to that as any time in the past 25 years of Spartan basketball. No pressure.
Once again, this update is a major bummer. Sorry. It is not much fun being an MSU basketball fan right now. But, as the self-appointed chief optimism officer of this fine website, I will offer one more piece of data for those of us who choose to continue to think positively.
Relying on Michigan State to simply luck into a tournament bid is not very satisfying or likely. So, let’s assume that MSU does start to play better, starting on Tuesday. The question then becomes how much better does MSU need to play in order to make an NCAA Tournament case? Figure 8 below may provide that answer.
In this case, I manually changed Michigan State’s efficiency margin to match that of another Big Ten team and then recalculated the total number of expected Big Ten wins that MSU would end up with. As shown above, if MSU continues to play at the level that it iscurrently playing, MSU’s expected win total is right at six, meaning that there is roughly a 50-50 chance to end up 6-14.
If MSU were only to elevate its play to the level where Maryland, Minnesota, Penn State or Indiana are currently, this would really only bump the expected win total up to around seven games, which is not good enough. If MSU can start playing like Purdue or Rutgers, the expected win total approaches 7.5, which is borderline.
In order to get the expected win total to be solidly at eight wins, Michigan State needs to start playing like Wisconsin (currently ranked No. 12 in Kenpom) right now. That is certainly a tall task, but that is where we are right now. The sad thing is that even if MSU were to start playing at the level of the top teams in the conference, getting to 10 wins (.500) would require a little bit of luck.
That said, of the three teams that MSU needs to most emulate right now (Purdue, Rutgers, and Wisconsin) the Spartan did beat one of those teams by 30 points, and led the other two by over nine points in the second half. I do believe that MSU is capable of playing that well. They just need to find a way to do it on a consistent basis.
Will that happen? It is honestly not likely. Is it possible? With Tom Izzo on the bench? You betcha.
That is all for today. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Boilers!