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Michigan State’s Bubble Competition: The High Majors

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Michigan State could not capitalize on recent momentum against Maryland on Sunday, leaving the Spartans solidly on the bubble. Let’s explore the teams who are MSU’s biggest threat to extending the streak.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 28 Michigan State at Maryland
Will MSU still manage to make the NCAA Tournament? It might be a jump ball.
Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Another day, another set of brackets. For me, the month of March is by far the best sports month on the calendar. The college basketball regular season is winding down and the competition for banners is heating up. Teams are fighting each and every night for season titles, seeding, or simply their tournament lives.

For Michigan State fans, we are used to fighting for titles and seeding. This year, however, we find ourselves in the rare and uncomfortable position of fighting simply for an NCAA Tournament bid. A week ago, things looked bleak, but after beating a pair of Final Four caliber, top-five opponents in a 72-hour period, the script had flipped.

But then, just as when things were looking pretty bright, the Spartans struggled again in College Park and lost by 17 points to the Maryland Terrapins. As things stand right now (and things change quickly this time of year) the Spartans are squarely on the bubble. On Sunday morning, MSU was appearing in about 50 percent of the online brackets. By Monday morning, who knows?

Clearly, there is still work to be done, but MSU absolutely has a chance. If the Green and White can return to the level of play that they showed during the three-game winning streak, I am very confident that MSU will be in the NCAA Tournament. But nothing is guaranteed.

In order to get a better feel for what MSU needs to do to extend the streak, I have been breaking down the other teams in line to make the NCAA tournament, one set of conferences at a time. In the previous two posts, I broke down the Big Ten and the mid-majors.

As for the low-and-mid-majors, it looks like they will be contributing right around 30 teams to the NCAA tournament field, which leaves around 38 teams that come from the remaining six power/high-major conferences.

Let’s now take a closer look at each conference, starting with a quick update on the Big Ten

Big Ten

Table 1 below gives the current summary of the Big Ten tournament and bubble teams. The NET and Kempon rankings are current as of the morning of Sunday, Feb 28. The projected seeds come from the “consensus rankings” on the bracket matrix project website.

Table 1: NCAA Tournament resume comparison for teams in the Big Ten

I am currently confident that at least eight Big Ten teams are safely in the NCAA Tournament: Michigan, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Maryland. While it is possible the Rutgers and/or Maryland could collapse and lose out, which might put them on the bubble, this is unlikely. This leaves four teams on the bubble: Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan State, and Penn State.

Since I last gave an update on the Big Ten, all four teams have all taken loses, but only Michigan State has added some key victories. As a result, I think that Penn State and Minnesota have both now fallen off from the bubble entirely and Indiana is in trouble. I don’t see Indiana beating Purdue in the Hoosiers’ season finale, and if MSU beats Indiana as well, at 7-13, the Hoosiers will fall out of the Tournament.

I thought that Minnesota was going to be a threat to MSU as well, but after bad losses to Northwestern and Nebraska (Minnesota’s fifth loss in a row) and still no road or neutral court wins, I think the Gopher are basically done as well.

If Michigan State finishes clearly above Minnesota, Indiana, and Penn State as the ninth best team in the conference, I think that MSU would be pretty clearly in the NCAA Tournament. I realize that the committee is not supposed to really compare teams in the same conference in this way, but human nature is human nature and it is easiest to compare teams when they have common opponents. Nine teams feels like the minimum number of bids that the conference will receive.

This makes Tuesday night’s game against Indiana a virtual “must-win.” First, the committee might very well see it as an elimination game of sorts. Second, losing to Indiana at home, would essentially be another “bad loss” on Michigan State’s resume. If MSU were to lose to Indiana, I think the Spartans would need to split the series with the Michigan Wolverines to get back on the positive side of the bubble.

If the Spartans do beat Indiana, MSU looks to have a great chance to snag the No 9 or No. 10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That, in itself, is extremely valuable

Big 12

When it comes to the evaluation of bubble team in the power conferences, the Big 12 is far by the easiest in 2021. The resumes of the potential tournament teams are summarized below:

Table 2: NCAA Tournament resumes for teams in the Big 12

Basically, seven teams are safely in, and the other three are out. Unless there is a major upset in the Big 12 Conference Tournament and a team like TCU wins, the Big 12 has no impact on the bubble at all.

SEC

The tournament resumes for the teams in the SEC are shown below.

Table 3: NCAA Tournament resumes for teams in the SEC

The SEC seems fairly straightforward. Right now, a total of five teams seem safe: Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, and Missouri. The Missouri Tigers are only at .500 and have somewhat of a soft NET ranking (yet still better than MSU’s NET ranking), but they do have six quad-one wins and that makes them safe.

As of now, there are two teams that might be on the bubble: Kentucky and Ole Miss. Right now they are both clearly out and Kentucky is still well below .500 overall. Those two teams play each other on Tuesday, and the loser is likely done for good. It is possible that one of these teams could make a run to the SEC Finals and get into the bubble conversation, but a tournament bid for either team is not likely.

Pac-12

The tournament resumes for the teams in the Pac-12 are shown below in Table 4.

Table 4: NCAA Tournament resumes for teams in the Pac-12

Currently, USC, and Colorado seem quite safe and UCLA and Oregon look OK right now as well. The Ducks have several games left, and I could see them sliding into bubble trouble if they were to drop a couple of games (for example against UCLA and Arizona) and lose early in the Pac-12 Tournament. They are a team to watch.

As for the bubble, Stanford has been floating around on other side of the bubble for a few weeks. But, they have dropped two in a row, including a bad loss to Washington State and another one to Oregon State. They might be able to redeem themselves if the Cardinal were to beat USC on the road or make a run in the Pac-12 Tournament, but I think this is unlikely. Besides, does the Pac-12 deserve five bids? No. I don’t think so.

If the top-four teams in the Pac-12 are all playing in the Pac-12 semifinals, I think four bids is it.

Big East

The tournament resume for the teams in the Big East are shown below in Table 5.

Table 5: NCAA Tournament resumes for teams in the Big East

Right now, Villanova and Creighton are quite safe, but the other three teams are clearly on the bubble. The consensus is that Xavier, Seton Hall, and UCONN are all in, but the position of all three teams is tenuous at best. All three teams have more bad losses than good wins, which is never a good sign. Xavier did pick up a big win over Creighton this weekend, but I would think MSU would compare very favorably against all three of these team.

If nothing else, only four of these teams can make the Big East semifinals. I have to wonder if the odd team out will be NIT bound.

ACC

The tournament resume for the teams in the ACC are shown below in Table 6.

Table 6: NCAA Tournament resumes for teams in the ACC

Of the six power conferences, the ACC is the one that it the most difficult to handicap. Right now, Florida State, Virginia, and Clemson seem to be safely in. Virginia Tech also seems to be safely in, but if I honesty look at the Hokies’ resume, is it that much better than MSU’s right now?

After that, there are a group of five teams that are all in various stages of on the bubble. Syracuse lost to Georgia Tech on Saturday and that puts them on life support, but the Orange do have two games remaining against North Carolina and Clemson and could possibly get back onto the bubble.

As for the other four teams: North Carolina, Duke, Georgia Tech, and Louisville, they are all pretty much a toss-up and they actually have several games against each other remaining (Duke at North Carolina, Duke at Georgia Tech, and North Carolina at Duke). In addition Louisville has games left at Virginia Tech and versus Virginia, which are both possible resume builders. On Saturday, Louisville got a win at Duke to earn the team’s first quad-one victory, while Duke is now up to six non-quad one losses to only one quad-one win.

Of these four bubble teams, I have a hard time believing that more than two deserve to be the NCAA Tournament, but there might be room for three. Right now, in my opinion, North Carolina and Georgia Tech have a slight edge based on quality wins and bad losses. Is Michigan State’s resume worse than any of those four teams? I would argue that it is not, and MSU does have the head-to-head win against Duke. Those four teams combined barely have more of quad-one wins than MSU.

This is a situation where I think the ACC Tournament is going to be very important. If one of those bubble teams lose early, they are likely done. But at the end of the day, how many bids does the ACC really deserve? Six or seven at the maximum feels right.

Adding it all up

If I look at the full landscape, this is what I see:

  • Low Majors: 15 automatic bids
  • Mid Majors: 10 automatic bids, plus around five or six at-large teams from the A-10, Mountain West, the Missouri Valley, and the West Coast Conference.
  • Big 12: Seven teams are in, and no one is on the bubble
  • SEC: Six teams are safe, plus two unlikely bubble teams (Kentucky and Ole Miss)
  • Pac-12: Four teams are safe and Stanford is an unlikely bubble team
  • Big East: Two teams are safe, while three bubble teams (UCONN, Seton Hall, and Xavier) with a solid chance
  • ACC: Four teams are safe, and additional five teams (UNC, Duke, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Syracuse) on the bubble
  • Big Ten: Eight teams are safe with four other teams on the bubble. Of those four, MSU is quickly starting to look like the best option, but that could change on Tuesday.

The total number of teams that seem completely safe are 56. I will add BYU, Drake, and a second team from both the A-10 (VCU) and Mountain West (Boise State) to get to 60 as those teams all seem mostly safe as well. This leaves a grand total of eight slots, for most likely the following 10 teams:

  • Michigan State
  • North Carolina
  • Duke
  • Louisville
  • Georgia Tech
  • UCONN
  • Seton Hall
  • Xavier
  • Colorado State
  • Wichita State

Right now, even with Sunday’s loss at Maryland, Michigan State’s tournament resume is comparable to all 10 of those teams. The Spartans have the most quality wins and are tied with the least number of bad losses. A loss to Indiana would tarnish Michigan State’s resume, but as long as MSU beats Indiana, I am starting to feel very confident. That said, here are some potential problems to watch out for:

  • Houston getting upset in the AAC tournament
  • A team other than VCU or Saint Bonaventure winning the A-10 tournament
  • A team other than Drake or Loyola winning the Missouri Valley tournament
  • Stanford making a late push in the Pac-12
  • Ole Miss or Kentucky winning or making a strong push in the SEC tournament
  • Syracuse making a late push in the ACC tournament

As I look at all of the teams and all of the data, my conclusion is this: if Michigan State wins just two more games total (in the remainder of the regular season OR the Big Ten Tournament) then I think the Spartans are in the tournament, perhaps even comfortably. If MSU wins just one more game, it will be a white-knuckle ride all the way to Selection Sunday. If MSU wins three games or more, then it is time to talk about seeding.

That said, the biggest unknown right now is the selection committee itself. How will they consider the impact that COVID-19 and the disjointed, incomplete, and unbalanced schedules? If the committee looks at good wins and bad loses, then MSU is in very good shape, possibly even with a loss to Indiana.

However, if the committee instead relies on rankings such as Kenpom or the NET and sees MSU not-so-pretty conference schedule, the Spartans could be in trouble, even if they do win two more games. I think that this is the less likely option, but it is certainly one that we can’t rule out.

Either way, Selection Sunday is just two weeks away, and the Spartans still have their fate in their own hands.