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Hoops Analysis: Michigan State’s path to the NCAA Tournament

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With MSU’s win over Illinois, the possibility to extend the NCAA Tournament streak is increasing. What does MSU need to do to get into the Big Dance?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 23 Illinois at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As February winds down and March approaches, the Michigan State Spartans basketball team is in uncharted waters. The Spartans have not been close to the NCAA Tournament bubble since 2011, almost always putting together strong seasons, but as of now MSU is clearly on the wrong side of it in 2021.

However, over the last two games. A more familiar version of the Spartans is starting to emerge. I have been saying for weeks that there is still a good or even a very good team in that locker room somewhere. I expected that we would see it a few times before the end of the season. The question was whether that team would emerge before it was too late to matter. We saw that team on Tuesday night against Illinois

The huge win over the Illini certainly has given MSU fans reason to believe that yet another late February and March run may be possible. The Spartans are now much closer to being back on the bubble than they have been in weeks. The question on every MSU fan’s mind right now is simple: will MSU be able to claw back into NCAA Tournament?

As the Big Ten season has progressed, I have been providing periodic updates on the odds for the Big Ten race. For today, I will give an abbreviated version of that update. For now, let’s just focus on the metrics that will most likely impact MSU’s chances to make the Tournament: the expected number of wins, the Big Ten Tournament seeding odds, and what Kenpom efficiency data is telling us.

Brief Odds Update

Following the big win over Illinois, here is the updated Big Ten win distribution matrix.

Table 1: Big Ten win distribution matrix as of Feb 24, 2021

MSU’s expected conference win total is now up to 7.3. Based on the Spartans’ current Kenpom efficiency and projected point spreads, I estimate about a 40 percent chance that MSU will get to eight wins, and a 10 percent chance that MSU can make it to 9-11.

As for the Big Ten Tournament seeding odds, Table 2 give an update on those calculations.

Table 2: Big Ten Tournament seeding odds, as of Feb 24, 2021

For several reasons, it is very important that MSU can rise up at least the No. 10 seed in the conference tournament. First, from an optics view point, it will be critical that MSU is viewed as one of the best-10 teams in the conference. For weeks, pundits have been projecting that nine or 10 Big Ten teams will make the Big Dance.

Second, the No. 10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament will earn a first round bye and be able to start play on Thursday instead of Wednesday. This avoids a potentially deadly bad loss on Wednesday, and gives the team one more day of rest, which at that point MSU will desperately need.

The current math now gives MSU a 21 percent chance to earn the No. 10 seed or better and a 60 percent chance of earning at least the No. 11 seed. Considering the large gap between projected No. 13 seed Northwestern and No. 14 seed Nebraska, even just moving up from the No. 12 seed to the No. 11 seed is an important improvement for MSU.

Finally, if I combine the information above with the current Kenpom efficiency data, the updated NCAA Tournament dashboard is shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1: MSU NCAA Tournament bubble dashboard.

This data certainly looks better than it did on Monday, but it is still a bit discouraging. Based on the data shown Figure 1, I would estimate that MSU’s current odds to make the NCAA Tournament are up to around 30 percent.

While I rely heavily on this data, it is time to point out a few caveats. First, all of these calculations above are assuming that MSU is exactly as good as their current Kenpom efficiency data suggests, which is an average of MSU’s performance over the past 21 games.

But, I would posit that the Michigan State team that played over the last week is a lot better than MSU’s average performance so far this year. If MSU can maintain this level of play (or close to it) the actual odds of MSU dancing are higher than what is shown in Figure 1.

Second, even in a normal year, there is no clear set of performance targets or metrics that we can point to in order to decide if a team is “in” or “out.” Total record, conference record, quality wins, bad losses, recent momentum, NET rankings, and efficiency rankings (such as the analysis above) all factor directly or indirectly. This year, the committee has the additional task of figuring out how COVID has affected each team how to weight that impact, if at all.

At the end of the day, unless a team wins their conference tournament, it is simply up to a group of human beings to make the judgement call as to whether your team in one of the 36 most worthy teams left on the board on Selection Sunday. Michigan State is not competing against numbers. The Spartans are competing with a group of other bubble team.

As such, a more complete analysis must involve a direct comparison of the resumes of other teams. Over the next few days, I would like to explore this subject in more detail, starting with the other teams in the Big Ten.

The Big Ten Bubble

If I were on the committee, one of the first things that I would do would be to compare the Big Ten bubble teams to each to other in order to look for signs of separation. As I look at the standings, there are six Big Ten teams with at least 10 conference wins who appear to be safely in the tournament right now: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue, and Wisconsin.

Then there is a group of six teams who are short of 10 wins and are more-or-less in competition with MSU (6-9) for an at-large tournament bid. Those teams include Maryland (8-9), Rutgers (8-9), Indiana (8-9), Minnesota (6-10) and Penn State (4-11). Northwestern and Nebraska already have 13 losses or more and would need to win the Big Ten Tournament to get in, which is extremely unlikely.

Let’s now look at the resume and likely trajectory of each of those six teams.

Maryland (8-9), NET Ranking: 30, Q1 wins: 5, Non-Q1 losses: 1

They have good wins (Q1 a.k.a. “quad one”) at Wisconsin (19), at Illinois (4) at Rutgers (31), vs. Purdue (26) and at Minnesota (61), and their only “bad loss” (i.e. non-quad one loss) is versus Rutgers (31), which barely qualifies and may change by Selection Sunday. Note that the numbers in parenthesis are the current NET rankings for each team as of Feb 24.

The Terps close versus MSU (75), at Northwestern (96), and versus Penn State (40) and none of those games would currently be classified as “quad one”. Maryland is currently projected as a No. 10 seed by the bracket matrix project website. It is likely that Maryland ends up with 10 or 11 wins, so it will be tough for MSU to jump them on the seed line or in the standings, even if MSU were to win in College Park this Sunday.

That said, a 9-11 MSU team with a head-to-head win over the Terps and a pair of late season top-10 wins just might do that. Even so, the best case scenario for MSU would be to beat Maryland head-to-head, have Maryland get upset at Northwestern or versus Penn State, and then flame out early (perhaps against MSU) in the Big Ten Tournament.

Rutgers (8-9), NET Ranking: 31, Q1 wins: 4, Non-Q1 losses: 1

The Scarlet Knight split with MSU and hold wins versus Illinois (4), at Maryland (30), at Indiana (54), and versus Purdue (26). Their only “bad loss” was ironically at MSU (75). Rutgers closes with games versus Indiana (54) at Nebraska (145) and at Minnesota (61) to end the season. A win at Minnesota would be an additional quad one win.

Right now, Rutgers projects as a No. 8 seed and as a favorite in all three remaining games. However, the contests against Indiana and Minnesota both project as near toss-ups. Odds are that Rutgers gets the split and will finish at 10-10. If MSU can get to 9-11 and outperform Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament, I could see MSU viewed in a similar light to Rutgers.

Indiana (7-8), NET Ranking: 54, Q1 wins: 3, Non-Q1 losses: 3

The Hoosiers already lost once to the Spartans, and if the talk of Michigan State making the NCAA Tournament is to continue, MSU needs to beat Indiana again next week. Period. The Hoosiers marquee wins on the season both came against Iowa (5) and they have an additional quality win versus Maryland (30).

Indiana’s “bad” losses came versus Rutgers (31), Michigan State (75), and Northwestern (96) all at home. The Bracket Project current has Indiana as a No. 12 seed and in the play-in game, but right now, their tournament resume does not look that much better than MSU’s resume, especially if the Spartans can sweep the Hoosiers.

Indiana will play a total of 19 conference games and will close the season with games at Rutgers (31), versus Michigan (3), at Michigan State (75), and at Purdue (26). Right now, they are only projected to be a favorite at MSU, and after the Spartans’ win over Illinois, even that is in doubt. The odds suggest the Hoosiers will only win one or two more games, but 0-4 is a very really possibility. That said, any remaining win would be a quad one win.

If MSU beats Indiana, they will likely finish Big Ten play at 8-11 if not 7-12 and the Spartans would have a great chance to pass them both in the standings and on the seed line.

Minnesota (6-10), NET Ranking: 61, Q1 wins: 4, Non-Q1 losses: none

The Gophers have been really good at home. They have wins over Michigan (3), Iowa (5), Ohio State (7), and Purdue (26) at The Barn. Their worst loss was at Indiana (54) which is still quad one. They also beat MSU badly in the one and only meeting of the year.

But, here is the weird part. Minnesota has not won a single game away from home this year. Not one. This is not something that the committee usually looks kindly on. As of today, Minnesota projects as a No. 12 seed, also as one of the last teams in.

As for their home stretch, the Gophers are not exactly facing murderers’ row. They have games versus Northwestern (96), at Nebraska (145), at Penn State (40), and versus Rutgers (31). They project to only be favored in the first two games and the odds agree that a 2-2 record is most likely. A win at Penn State would be a quad one win and a win over Rutgers might be in that category be the end of the season well.

If Minnesota finishes at 8-10 and tied with MSU, this is a tough call. The Gophers have a lot of quality wins and the head-to-head win over MSU. But, if the Spartans can get to 9-11, I think that MSU would pass the Gopher in the eyes of the committee, pending the results of the Big Ten Tournament.

Penn State (5-11), NET Ranking: 40, Q1 wins: 3, Non-Q1 losses: 3

Of the five teams that MSU is currently jockeying with for position, Penn State is the only team where MSU currently has a likely edge. Penn State’s best wins came at Virginia Tech (36), versus Wisconsin (20), and versus Maryland (30).

Penn State’s bad losses came at Michigan State (75), and versus Seton Hall (51), and Nebraska (145). The Nittany Lions also lost their only game on the schedule against the Spartans.

Penn State closes the season versus Purdue (26), Minnesota (61), and at Maryland (30), and they only project as a favorite against the Gophers. The Purdue and Maryland games are both in quad one at this time. The odds suggest that two wins might be more likely than not, but even so, a record of 7-12 is unlikely to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. That said, Penn State taking out Maryland and especially Minnesota could really help MSU in the standings. Go Lions?

Finally, let’s review MSU’s resume using the same metrics:

Michigan State (6-9), NET Ranking: 75, Q1 wins: 3, Non-Q1 losses: 1.

MSU’s best wins are over Illinois (4), at Duke (48), and at Indiana (54). The Spartans are also 3-2 combined against the teams listed above with a shot to get to 5-2 before the end of the season. To my knowledge, the Spartans do not currently appear in any bracket projection.

Of course, MSU closes the season against Ohio State (7), at Maryland (30), versus Indiana (54), at Michigan (3) and versus Michigan (3). Beating Indiana again would be a “quad two” win while any other win would be “quad one.”

If MSU’s final Big Ten record is 8-12, the Spartans would likely have one additional quad one win, with the chance to pick up one or two more in the Big Ten Tournament. That said, it would be better if that additional quad one with came against Ohio State or Michigan as opposed to Maryland.

If the Spartans’ final Big Ten record is 9-11, the Spartan would likely have two additional quad one wins, with a chance to add more in Indianapolis. The home win over Rutgers also might wind in in quad one, so the Spartans will likely have between four and seven quad one wins on Selection Sunday. That said, Indiana might fall far enough that the win in Bloomington might not be a quad one win in a few weeks.

The Bottom Line

If Michigan State cannot build on its current momentum and finish with only six or seven regular season Big Ten wins, then the season will almost certainly be over when MSU loses in the Big Ten Tournament (well, probably the NIT).

If MSU finishes at 8-12 in regular season conference play, the Spartans would be clearly behind Maryland and Rutgers, even (or slightly behind) Minnesota, but likely still ahead of Indiana and Penn State. In this scenario, my simulation suggests that MSU would have about a 70 percent chance to move up to the No. 10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament and would thus not have to play on Wednesday.

As the No. 10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, the Spartans would most likely draw either Rutgers or Maryland as the No. 7 seed. If MSU were to win that game against a NCAA Tournament team, then the Spartans might have a shot to sneak into the Tournament, and maybe even a good one.

The next opponent would then be most likely the No. 2 seed, which projects to be either Illinois or Ohio State. Any win after that would be gravy. That might be enough, or it might not be enough to make the Big Dance. MSU’s fate would depend on the landscape in the rest of the country, which I will examine in detail a little later in the week.

If MSU can find a way to win three more games and finish at 9-11 in Big Ten play, I think that the committee would see the Spartans as comparable to Maryland and Rutgers and ahead of the rest of the pack. Considering those two teams are currently projected to be anywhere from a No. 8 to a No. 10 seed, I would feel comfortable that MSU would make the NCAA Tournament, especially with a fair performance in the Big Ten Tournament.

In addition, at 9-11 the Spartans would have a great shot to move up to the No. 8 or No. 9 seed or better Big Ten Tournament, and would then most likely face Maryland on Thursday. A win would very likely place MSU squarely in the Tournament, and would also earn them yet another date with the Wolverines on Friday.

So, while nothing is certain, I think that it is clear that MSU needs to get to at least eight conference wins to get into the conversation and nine wins to start to feel maybe confident to extend Tom Izzo’s NCAA Tournament streak. Either way, MSU needs to still be playing in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday.

As for the competition, I think that it makes sense to root for Rutgers and Penn State and against Indiana, Minnesota, and Maryland for the rest of the Big Ten season. While the climb into the Tournament is still steep, it is looking more plausible by the day.

That is all for today. As always, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Buckeyes!