As I look at the calendar, we are now in late February. Usually by this time of year in Michigan, we are watching the snow slowly recede during our daily commutes to work and watching Tom Izzo’s ball club closely to see whether the Michigan State Spartans can snag yet another Big Ten title and/or make another long run in March.
But, this year is not like normal years.
A week ago, the Spartans were essentially left for dead. After MSU faded late in West Lafayette to sink to 4-9, most pundits declared that Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament streak was officially over. But MSU went into Bloomington on Saturday and got the win that it desperately needed over the Indiana Hoosiers. While the record is just 5-9, the Spartans are not dead yet.
Sure, the road ahead is difficult. Based on the newly revised schedule, MSU will end the regular season by playing seven games in 16 days, four of which will be against teams ranked in the top-five nationally. But, if there is one thing that college basketball fans should have learned a long time ago it is this: never count Coach Tom Izzo out, no matter how bad of a hand he seems to hold.
MSU’s win over Indiana was big. At this point, any win is big, but it was the first time since pounding Rutgers in early January that Michigan State beat a team that will likely be playing in mid-March. Furthermore, fans or no fans, a win on the road in a building that has been a house of horrors for a lot better MSU teams is a big accomplishment.
But more than anything, we saw signs that several of Michigan State’s players are rounding into form. Aaron Henry, Josh Langford, and Gabe Brown all had solid games. Additionally, Rocket Watts appears to be on his way back up, and the four-headed monster at center was at least serviceable. While MSU’s two primary option at the power forward position (Joey Hauser and Malik Hall) had a tough day, we have seen these players shine before. They have it in them to both be plus players.
When MSU has struggled this year, it has been because only one or maybe two guys show up and the rest of the team seems to be still on the bus mentally. The problem for Izzo is that it seems to be a constant rotation of who is locked in and who is fogged out. It is a frustrating game of whack-a-mole that even one of the best coaches of all time is having trouble solving.
But, with the COVID pause now in the rear view mirror and with the end of the season approaching, it is possible that we might see a game or two yet when all of the moles are back in their holes and MSU actually gets four or five guys to play well at the same time.
If and when that happens, then all of a sudden MSU is the potential Big Ten contender caliber team that we thought we had back in December. That version of MSU absolutely can compete with any of the teams left on the schedule. I am sure of that.
That doesn’t mean that it will happen, but it simply means that it could happen. Once again, MSU is still alive and showing signs that it can get off of the mat. So with this in mind, let’s once again dive into the cold, emotionless numbers to see where MSU and the overall Big Ten race stands today.
Current Standings and Odds Update
As usual, here are the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as Feb 22, 2021.
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.
This week, I made a few significant changes to the way I analyze this data. On Friday, it was announced that MSU’s two remaining postponed games (versus Indiana and at Michigan) would be made up during the first week of March. As a result, unless something changes, MSU will complete the full 20-game conference schedule.
Most other schools announced similar changes, and as of now, all but four of the originally scheduled 140 Big Ten games look likely to be played. Of those four, three involve the University of Michigan (the games versus Indiana, at Penn State, and at Northwestern) while the remaining game is Nebraska at Purdue. As of now, nine Big Ten teams will play all 20 games, four teams will play 19, and Michigan will play only 17.
As a result of this unbalanced schedule, the expected win totals above are a bit less meaningful. Also, I am now calculating the championship odds and Big Ten Tournament seeding based on win percentages.
At 5-9, MSU currently sits in 11th place in the standings. If we look on the bright side, MSU is tied for eighth place in the loss column and four of the remaining six conference games are at home. The bad news is that remaining schedule is one of the hardest ones in the league.
As for expected wins, the Spartans’ total is back over six wins and the odds to get to 7-13 are now at over 40 percent. But, the odds to get to 8-12 (and possibly back into the NCAA tournament discussion) are only 13 percent. Figure 1 also shows that MSU is now basically even in the luck category.
With Michigan’s win over Ohio State on Sunday, the Big Ten race is practically down to just two teams: Michigan and Illinois, with Michigan now projecting to have a 90 percent chance to win the title.
The two top teams will not play the same number of games, so assuming that raw win percentages are used to determine the champion, there is essentially no way for the teams to tie. While is it very likely that Michigan will simply win the title outright, possibly by several games, there are a few more interesting scenarios.
For example, if Michigan were to lose two of its last five games (which has about a 40 percent chance of happening) and if Illinois were to run the table (which is far less likely at just seven percent), Michigan would finish at 14-3 and Illinois would be at 17-3. In this scenario, Illinois would claim the outright title, and Michigan would suddenly be wondering why they didn’t try harder to make up those three skipped games.
As for “luck,” the Wolverines continue to dominate this metric as well, and have now won almost a full two games more than than predicted based on the retroactive points spreads and victory probabilities. In contract, Iowa is almost the exact mirror image.
Once again, “luck” measures the ability of a team to win more toss-up games than they lose. This is partially luck, but also a big part grit and skill. Good teams are the ones that consistently beat the odds. That said, sometimes “luck” is just that, and eventually it does run out. March is a tough month for that to happen and some teams seem due for a regression to the mean.
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 so far in Figure 3, and then the strengths of schedule for all remaining Big Ten contests in Figure 4.
The data in Figure 2 has also now been converted to percentages due to the unbalanced schedule. Once again, these figures compare the winning percentages that an average power five team would be expected to have if that team were to play the schedule of each Big Ten team.
As has been the case for most of this season, MSU’s overall schedule and remaining schedule is quite difficult, ranking 13th out of 14 teams. Only Wisconsin’s remaining schedule, which features three road games and a visit from the Illini, projects to be harder percentage-wise.
It should be noted that the two conference leaders (Michigan and Illinois) have the two easiest schedules overall and also have played two of the easiest schedules to date. Both teams have more challenging home stretches, however, including a game against each other.
Big Ten Tournament Projection
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 108 total Big Ten games have been played (79 percent of the season). That said, it is possible to make projections about the Big Ten tournament based on the simulated results of the regular season. Table 4 below provides that update.
As stated above, the projections now include only the games that have been rescheduled, and I am assuming that win percentages are used to seed the teams and to break ties.
The top four seeds and getting very close to being fixed with Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, and Iowa all with over 90 percent odds to skip the first two rounds. MSU still is projecting as the No. 12 seed who will most likely face No. 13 Northwestern on Wednesday of the Big Ten Tournament. In this scenario, MSU would face No. 5 seed Purdue on Thursday if they could beat the Wildcats in the first round.
I currently project about a seven percent chance that MSU will be able to climb out of the games on Wednesday and into at least the No. 10 seed. If this were to come to pass, the Spartans would face a team such as Rutgers or Maryland (projected No. 7 seeds) on Thursday of the Big Ten Tournament.
The results of a simulation of the Big Ten Tournament using the odds if the projected favorite wins all remaining Big Ten games is shown below in Table 5.
MSU’s odds to somehow win five games in five days to claim the conference tournament title and automatic bid remain dreadfully low at roughly 1-in-1,500.
MSU’s Current Position and Remaining Schedule
Following MSU’s loss to Purdue and win over Indiana, 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.
The good news is that MSU has finally moved in a positive direction on the offensive side of the ball and have now at least rejoined a part of the graph where previous MSU teams reside. The bad news is that the 2021 MSU team now has an almost identical profile to the 1997 team that did not make the tournament.
As for the current national title contenders, Gonzaga and Baylor remain ahead of the rest of the pack, but 18 additional teams currently are in the blue “championship zone” with both offensive and defensive efficiencies in the range of the past champions. Notably both Iowa and Ohio State are currently outside of this zone, due to their defensive numbers, while Purdue is solidly in the zone.
Next up is the Michigan State NCAA Tournament dashboard. With the split in the state of Indiana last week, the numbers have improved a little, but not by much. MSU’s NCAA Tournament odds are still likely just over about 10 percent. If MSU can improve its play and steal a win or two, those odds will improve.
Michigan State’s remaining schedule and odds are shown below in Figure 7.
While MSU does not project to be favored in any of the remaining games, the odds are a bit better than they looked a week ago and the home game versus Indiana is inching closer to a toss-up. If MSU is to have any chance to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, beating the Hoosiers again and getting a win at Maryland (the Terrapins are currently on a four-game winning streak and now get a week off to prepare for MSU) both seem crucial.
Unfortunately, the current odds to win both of those games are only 12 percent, assuming MSU plays at the level consistent with their current cumulative efficiency numbers. That likely will not be good enough. The Spartans need to continue to improve. Right now.
But how much better does MSU need to play? Figure 8 below attempts to estimate this by calculating the number of expected wins MSU would have with the remaining schedule if the Spartans were to suddenly start playing like other, better Big Ten teams (based on the Kenpom efficiency margin of each Big Ten team above MSU in the standings)
In order for MSU’s expected win total to get over 7.5 (where a total of 8 wins is more likely than not) MSU would need to start playing at the level where Purdue and Wisconsin are right now. That might be possible, based on the play that we saw in Bloomington over the weekend, but it needs to be consistent.
In this scenario, MSU would be favored to beat both Indiana and win at Maryland, but the odds of winning both games would still be only about one-in-three. However, the odds of beating either Illinois or Ohio State (or both) this week would climb to over 65 percent. Furthermore, the odds to at least split with Michigan would climb to 50 percent. Can MSU split with Illinois and Ohio State, steal a win over Michigan, and win one or both games against Indiana and Maryland?
In this hypothetical, MSU would still need some luck, but the Spartans would finish the season at no worse than 8-12 with two late season wins over top-five opponents. If the not-quite-dead-yet Spartans are to claw their way back into the NCAA Tournament conversation, this is likely the way to do it.
Can Coach Izzo pull yet another rabbit out of the hat and get this Spartan team to finally play with a level of consistency to approach their potential? I am not counting them out yet, and they will have two chances to prove themselves yet again against high quality opponents this week.
That is all for today. As always, enjoy, and Go State, Beat the Illini!