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Michigan State Basketball Analysis: Life On The Bubble

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With the NCAA Tournament bracket release in less than 48 hours, Michigan State is a bit closer to the bubble than we would like. Let’s explore where MSU is likely to land and the remaining threats to MSU’s position.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Maryland Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past two weeks, the Michigan State Spartans navigated one of the most intense gauntlets of conference play that I can ever remember. Over the span of 16 days, the Spartans played seven games, three of which were on the road and four of which were against top-five ranked opponents. The Green and White went 5-2 over that span, and in the process seem to have secured an NCAA Tournament bid.

I was eager to see what Michigan State was going to look like after a few days of rest, and after surviving the previous two weeks. For 10 minutes, MSU looked great, but unfortunately, a college basketball game is 40 minutes long, and the Spartans stay in the 2021 Big Ten Tournament lasted just a day.

This has very much been a Jekyll and Hyde type of season for the Spartans. Like every other fan, I was hoping that this phase was behind us. I was hoping that Dr. Jekyll was here to stay, but on Thursday, we mostly saw Mr. Hyde.

That said, the loss to Maryland may not be all that bad. Had MSU won the game, there was a strong possibility that the Spartans would have climbed up to the No. 9 or No. 8 seed line, which is not ideal. Furthermore, as it stands now, the Spartans will retain bragging rights of having defeated the Wolverines in the last meeting of the schools, which is nice. Finally, the Spartans likely could use the additional rest and practice time anyway.

More than anything, the loss has shaken some of the confidence of what this Spartan team can accomplish in March. Michigan State has shown clearly that it is capable of beating some of the best teams in the country. There is no doubt in my mind that the Dr. Jekyll version of the Spartans can be a nightmare for any team in this tournament. This team is capable of making it to the Final Four. Seriously.

On the other hand, the Mr. Hyde version of this team is capable of getting blown out in a First Four match-up by 30 points or more. Based on the overall efficiency of this team to date, an early exit (first or second round) from the NCAA Tournament seems most likely. While I remain optimistic, the last 30 minutes of the Maryland game were concerning.

But, before we talk too much more about a NCAA Tournament run, Michigan State first needs to simply secure a bid. The early exit from the Big Ten Tournament places MSU a bit closer to the bubble than perhaps we would all like. In less than 48 hours, the first NCAA Tournament bracket in the last 24 months will finally be released. It seems extremely likely that MSU will be on it. But... how sure are we?

A Last Look at the Bubble

Based on the consensus of online bracketologists, MSU still looks to be quite safe. The distribution of seeds that the experts have projected for MSU is shown below below in Figure 1, based on the current data collect by the bracket matrix website.

Figure 1: Distribution of seeds for MSU based 133 public brackets on the bracket matrix website

As we can see, the consensus is clearly that MSU will draw a No. 11 seed, with a No. 10 or No 12 seed in play as of Saturday morning, ESPN and Fox have the Spartans as a No. 11 seed, CBS has MSU as a No. 10 seed. With MSU in the clubhouse until Sunday evening, is this likely to change? Let’s take a look at the updated resumes of the rest of the teams currently on or near the bubble.

In this case, I have included a column listing the current projected seed from both ESPN and CBS, where “L4” stands for “last four” either in (with the seeds noted) or out. I have sorted this list based on ESPN’s seed list. The rows that are shaded indicate that teams is no longer playing and has no more chances to improve or damage their resume.

Table 2: Resumes of selected bubble teams

If ESPN is correct, the Spartans are two spots away from the First Four and six spots away from missing the tournament entirely. If CBS is correct, the cushion is larger. CBS has MSU at least five slots away from the First Four and nine slots away from oblivion. I am personally in-between. I have MSU as a high No. 11 seed, above UCLA and VCU, but below Wichita State.

While this may seem like it is too close for comfort, I am still quite confident that MSU will hold at this position. As the table shows, most of the other teams are out of their respective conference tournaments and at least to my eye (and the eyes of most bracketologists) the Spartans’ resume on balance is quite a bit better than most other teams on the bubble. That is not going to change by Sunday night.

While the Spartans’ NET ranking (70), Kempon ranking (55) and overall record is not pretty, MSU has five quad-one wins and now only one non-quad-one loss. No other bubble team is even close in this category. Furthermore, MSU’s ranking using my just created NEW Index is a comfortable No. 35. While this is meaningless to the committee, I believe that it correlates better to the opinions of various experts and therefore might correlate to the thinking of the actual committee members as well.

Threats From Below

While I am confident that the Spartans will wind up with a No. 10 or No. 11 seed, there are a few cases to consider as unlikely, but bad scenarios. Let us first start with the assumption that the less optimistic placement by ESPN is correct. This would assume that MSU is below UCLA and the eventual loser of the Atlantic 10 Championship game. Both CBS and I have MSU ahead of both teams, but we cannot rule the idea out that Joe Lunardi is correct and Jerry Palm is wrong.

If this is true, then what other teams have the potential to be ahead of MSU on the seed line in the eyes of the committee? Here is a list in descending order of threat potential:

1) Wichita State

The Shockers are ahead of Michigan State both based on the CBS bracket and in my NEW Index, so I think that it is certainly possible that they might wind up seeded above MSU in the final bracket, especially if they make it to the AAC Championship Game. If the Shockers win the AAC title, they cannot play in First Four play-in round, which also might impact MSU’s placement.

2) Drake

The Missouri Valley Conference runner-up has a very nice record (23-4) and respectable NET (44), but the Bulldogs only have one impressive win on the year over Loyola Chicago to go along with two loses outside of the NET top 150. They are just two spots below MSU in my NEW Index. If the committee has a soft spot for scrappy mid-majors, Drake could wind up above Michigan State.

3) Utah State

The likely Mountain West runner-up has a similar resume to Drake. The overall record is not as good, but the Aggies have a better NET. The quality wins look a little better than Drake (although Utah State has one more bad loss). I could at least imagine the committee being impressed by that, but it is a stretch. If the Aggies beat San Diego State and win the Mountain West, similar to Wichita State, they would not be eligible to play in the First Four.

4) Louisville and/or Syracuse

Either of these teams ending up ahead of Michigan State on the seed line would be a major joke, in my opinion. Louisville’s NET ranking is not that much better than MSU’s NET ranking, and the Cardinal’s best win (at Duke) is also MSU’s fourth best win. On the other hand, while Syracuse has a much better NET ranking (40), its best win is technically at North Carolina State, which is just barely quad-one. I just don’t see it.

Even if the committee somehow put all five of those teams above MSU (which seems extremely unlikely) the Spartans would still wind up in the First Four. While I suppose that it is theoretically possible that the committee could somehow elevate some other team on this list (such as Saint Louis or Colorado State) this is really stretching the boundaries of what is reasonable.

Bid Stealers

While there is some threat from other teams on the bubble, the bigger threat to Michigan State’s position right now is coming from a rapidly shrinking pool of teams that have little or no chance to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team, but who could still make the Big Dance by winning their conference tournaments. These teams would each knock the lowest seeded at-large team off from the bubble and steal a bid. In other words, these teams are potential “bid stealers.”

These teams would almost certainly wind up seeded below MSU on the seed line, but they would also push the bubble upward. In effect, this increases the odds that MSU will need to play in the First Four play-in round (as automatic bids outside of the No. 16 seeds cannot play in the First Four).

For most of the remaining conference tournaments, there are no potential bid stealers out there. In the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, and the SEC, all remaining teams are already safely in the tournament field. However, that is not the case in the Big East or the Pac-12. In addition, the American Athletic Conference still has a few wild cards remaining. All of the other conferences do not pose any risk.

The currently remaining bid stealers are:

1) Georgetown (Big East)

The Hoyas upset Villanova and then Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Big East Championship game on Saturday. If Georgetown beats Creighton (24 percent odds, according to Kenpom) to claim the title, one bubble team is headed for the NIT.

2) Oregon State (Pac 12)

The Beavers upset UCLA and then rival Oregon on the way to the Pac-12 Championship. Oregon State now will face Colorado (23 percent odds of an update) with a chance to earn a bid while simultaneously ruining the day of another bubble team.

3) Memphis or Cincinnati (AAC)

Neither the Tigers nor the Bearcats project to be in the NCAA Tournament right now, but one of them would be if they were to win their next two games. I project about a 13 percent chance that Memphis wins the AAC and only a 2.4 percent chance that Cincinnati claims the title. The question here is if Wichita State would stay in the field or not. It is possible that the committee could simply replace one AAC team with another. But, it is possible that the league would get three teams, thus shrinking the bubble.

Right now, there is about a 50 percent chance that at least one of those teams pulls the upset.

The Bottom Line

As I see the bubble right now, I think that most likely MSU will remain as a No. 11 seed (if not a No. 10 seed) and not in the First Four. But, there are a few scenarios where the Spartans could find themselves in the play-in round. First of all, ESPN’s current projection would need to be close to correct or even optimistic.

Then, a few upsets this weekend, such as Utah State winning the Mountain West and Oregon State winning the Pac-12 would need to knock a few teams off the bottom of the bubble and slide the First Four line up to meet MSU.

Is there a disaster scenario out there where the Spartans miss the Big Dance entirely? Yes, but it is an extreme long shot. For this to happen, I believe that two or three of the bid stealers above would need to win their respective tournaments and some combination of at least five or six of the following teams would need to wind up above MSU on the seed line:

  • VCU
  • UCLA
  • Syracuse
  • Louisville
  • Drake
  • Utah State
  • Saint Louis
  • Colorado State

This seems extremely unlikely. While I imagine that there will be some sweaty palms in my house until I actually see the Spartans’ name on the bracket, I am confident that MSU will still be dancing. How long will they stay? That all depends of which version of MSU emerges over the next week of practice.