It has been a very long time since the Michigan State Spartans basketball team tasted victory. If you combine the almost three-week COVID pause and a four-game losing streak, MSU officially went a full month without a win. On Saturday night, the Green and White defeated last place Nebraska by 10 points to officially get off of the schneid. The Spartans moved to 9-7 overall (3-7 in Big Ten play).
Earlier in the week, MSU traveled to Iowa City and came close to stealing a victory against the top-10 Hawkeyes. But, Josh Langford’s shot to tie the game rimmed out and the Spartans were once again denied a potentially momentum-altering, if not season-altering win. As mentioned, as it stands now, MSU is 3-7 in Big Ten play at the half-way point of the season, assuming all of the postponed games are made up.
On some level, a close loss on the road to a ranked team followed by a double-digit win feels like progress. On the other hand, MSU’s performance against Nebraska did not inspire a lot of confidence that the Spartans are not improving quickly enough to salvage the season. The team is still plagued by turnovers, poor shooting, inconsistent point guard play, and spotty defense.
Perhaps most importantly, only one or two of MSU keys players (Aaron Henry, Josh Langford, Rocket Watts, and Joey Hauser) seem able to have even just an average game at the same time. If these factors do not improve, MSU’s season is going to continue to be stuck in the COVID quagmire.
These observations are largely subjective and as such they can only be trusted so much. My approach has always been to use the cold, hard numbers to supplement what our eyeballs are telling us. As such, I will continue to take a look at the numbers for MSU and the rest of the Big Ten to see where we are and where things might go.
Current Standings and Odds Update
As usual, here are the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as February 7th, 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.
In the overall standings, MSU has at least moved ahead of Northwestern and into 12th place. The only other mildly encouraging factors are that MSU is still only at minus one in the road-win-minus-home-loss metric. From this point of view, the Spartans are only two games back of Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.
Also, MSU continues to be the least lucky team in the Big Ten. There is a path back to some level of success by merely defending home court and getting a lucky break here or there. If the Breslin Center can continue to be Home, Sweet Home, as most Big Ten arenas have been this year, things might not be quite as bad as they seem. Hitting roughly one more three-pointer in Iowa City would have perhaps counted as a lucky break.
Overall, MSU’s expected win total in conference play is still slightly below six wins, assuming all 20 games eventually get played, which is essentially exactly where MSU was following the loss against Ohio State. I estimate MSU’s odds to scratch back to .500 at only one percent and the odds to make it to 8-12 at only 14 percent.
As for the rest of the Big Ten, Michigan remains in the driver’s seat with a two-game lead and odds of close to 75 percent to at least share the regular season title. That said, Michigan has played by far the easiest conference schedule and has almost a full game of positive luck (see below).
The Wolverines have yet to play Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Rutgers, or Indiana and it is hard to say what they will look like once they take the court again following their own COVID-related pause. While it is still likely that the Maize and Blue will wind up hanging a banner or two this year, sometimes looking strong in January in basketball is like looking strong in football in the month of September. There is still a lot of basketball yet to be played.
As for the other contenders, Illinois and Ohio State both recently picked up a win over Iowa and are the clear biggest challengers right now to win or share the title. The problem is that there is about a 35 percent chance that record of 17-3 will be needed to win the Big Ten. If that is true, Ohio State is already out and Illinois would need to be perfect.
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. In addition, between those two figures I have added a new figure that shows the strength of schedule for Big Ten games played so far. As a reminder, all of these calculations are based on the expected number of wins (or winning percentage) for an average Power Five team if they were to play the schedule of each Big Ten team.
This data is not very encouraging for MSU fans. Basically, the Spartans’ schedule is the second most difficult overall (only Northwestern has a tougher schedule) and MSU’s schedule is also heavily back-loaded. MSU has the hardest remaining Big Ten schedule. An average Power Five team (as good as Rutgers or Indiana) would project to only win 42 percent of MSU’s remaining games, and MSU is currently playing well below that pace.
In other words, in order for MSU to hit the eight-win mark that is likely to be needed to just get back into the NCAA Tournament conservation, the Spartans need to either get some luck or they need to start playing more like a top-20 team.
As for the rest of the Big Ten race, as mentioned above, Michigan’s schedule it is the overall the easiest in the league, but like MSU, it it also back-loaded. This is encouraging for a team like Illinois. The Illini also have a relatively easy conference schedule, but their remaining schedule is notably easier that the Wolverines’ schedule.
Finally, I continue to have to keep my eye on Maryland. The Terrapins have the easiest remaining conference schedule and they are currently just ahead of MSU in the standings. Minnesota is in a similar position. As the Spartans start to think about potential seeding and positioning in the Big Ten Tournament, these are the teams that MSU is likely to be competing with for the important first round bye.
Speaking of that...
Big Ten Tournament Projection
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 78 total Big Ten games have been played (56 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.
The Spartans are still projecting as either the No. 12 or No. 13 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. The current math only gives MSU an 11 percent chance to avoid playing on Wednesday in the first round. That said, Penn State, Indiana, and Maryland are all teams near the Spartans in the standing, and MSU has four games total remaining with those three teams. MSU’s performance in those four games will greatly impact the final Big Ten Tournament seed.
Overall, Michigan and Illinois look to be virtual locks for the coveted Big Ten Tournament double bye (over 95 percent chance). Ohio State’s odds are also now over 70 percent to start play on Friday. As for the fourth and final spot, Iowa (58 percent) currently holds the edge over Purdue (46 percent) with Wisconsin (27 percent) and Rutgers (six percent) still in play.
As for the Big Ten Tournament itself, I have now started to simulate the results of the actual tournament, using the seeds projects by my full season simulation (and not just the single scenario where the favored teams win all remaining games). The results of the tournament simulation are shown below.
As a general rule, the odds are going mirror the overall Kenpom efficiency margins, with a edge of a few percentage points given to the teams that earn single or double byes. The current simulation suggests a near toss up between the top four seeds.
Meanwhile, MSU’s odds to win the Big Ten Tournament without the benefit of bye and assuming the MSU does not improve remaining a vanishingly small 1-in-550.
MSU’s Current Position and Upcoming Schedule
Following MSU’s loss at Iowa and win over Nebraska, 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.
Despite some signs of potential progress in MSU’s last two games, the efficiency metrics show that MSU is essentially just treading water, if not continuing to slowly sink...with time running out. The Spartans’ defensive numbers are respectable and in the range of current and past teams that have had successful seasons.
But, as our eyeballs can attest, it is MSU’s offense that is the primary concern. The Spartan offense approached respectability at times this year, but especially since the COVID-19 pause, the offense has been in free fall. The 2021 MSU team now most resembles MSU’s last team that did not play in the NCAA tournament, in 1997.
In a normal year, by early February, it would be unlikely that a team with MSU’s profile would be able to improve enough to matter. The green oval of uncertainty suggests that the most likely best-case scenario is for MSU to level up to the resemble the 2011 team that lost in the first round to UCLA. Sadly, I think that most MSU fans would take that right now.
Based on all of this information, Figure 6 below shows the updated MSU tournament streak dashboard.
These metrics still diverge quite a bit. The 44 percent odds suggested by the raw Kenpom efficiency margin is likely way too high, but the odds based on the Kenpom ranking, MSU’s Big Ten record and Big Ten Tournament seed are all fairly close. From this data, I would propose that the current odds for the streak to continue are around 15 percent only.
In order for these odds to improve, MSU simply needs to play better, starting essentially right now. The projected odds for MSU remaining ten games are shown below in Figure 7.
The bad news is that MSU is not projected to be favored in any of the games left on the schedule. The good news is that six of the games are still at home, and they are almost all projected to be “quad one” wins if the Spartans were to prevail.
With only three conferences wins so far, MSU almost certainly will need to go .500 from here on out to get back into the NCAA Tournament conversation. A glance at Figure 7 gives us a pretty good idea of how that might be able to happen.
As mentioned above, for Big Ten Tournament seeding purposes, wins over Penn State, Maryland, and Indiana (twice) would help significantly. Those also happen to be the most likely wins left on the schedule. All four of those games are quickly starting to look like “must wins.” As stated above, unless MSU starts to play a lot better, as soon as this Tuesday when Penn State comes to town, this is not very likely.
But, if we assume (hope?) that Tom Izzo is able to work some February magic in the next week or so and get the team to start playing similar to the level that they showed in the wins against Rutgers, then there perhaps is a chance to get all four of those wins. Based on where MSU is now, those odds project to be only about two percent.
But, with some Izzo magic and perhaps some luck and who knows what might happen? In the scenario where MSU wins those four games, MSU’s odds to secure at least an 8-12 record and/or a top-10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament would rise to roughly 75 percent. If MSU can find a way to win those four games, I have a feeling that the NCAA Tournament streak would continue.
MSU would only need to steal a win (or more) in home games against Iowa, Illinois, Ohio State, or Michigan or in the road games at Purdue or at Michigan. That certainly seems possible, especially if MSU can start playing like the team that we saw earlier in the year.
In any event, the game this week against Penn State is most likely the easiest game left on the schedule. The Spartans need to win this game. Period. If they cannot get that win, and instead fall to 3-8 on the season, the hole might officially be too steep to dig out of.
Sorry for the gloom and doom, but that it what the numbers are telling me right now. That said, a phrase that I like to use is “probability is not destiny.” As long as there are still games left on the schedule, and as long as Tom Izzo is on the bench, I will believe that MSU has a chance.
That is all for now. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State, beat the Lions.