[Author’s Note: Late Wednesday night, I noticed that there was an error in my spreadsheet such that I had erroneously credited Rutgers with a win over Nebraska. As a result, the original data tables, including the matrix of MSU’s potential Big Ten Tournament opponents was not correct.
In addition, Wednesday night saw Penn State defeat Minnesota, which clinched a Top 10 Big Ten Tournament seed for MSU. Also, Northwestern upset Maryland.
Thursday morning, at 10:15 a.m., the data tables and narrative were updated to include the correct information through Wednesday evening. I apologize for my error.]
Just 12 days ago, Michigan State’s season seemed to be on the brink. The Spartans had just come off from back-to-back loses to Iowa and Purdue and were sitting 4-9 in conference play and just barely over .500 overall. Fans and pundits alike were lamenting about the loss of MSU’s NCAA Tournament streak, like it was a foregone conclusion.
But starting on a Saturday afternoon in Bloomington, Indiana, Michigan State’s season started to turn around. The Spartans have now won four of the last five games, and six of the last nine games. With Tuesday night’s thrilling (if ugly) win over the Hoosiers, once again, the Spartans now seem to be on a more positive brink, the brink of an NCAA Tournament bid.
I have been saying for weeks that getting to eight Big Ten regular season wins was a major milestone in the hunt for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. Two weeks ago, getting to that number seemed like a long shot. Today, that milestone is in the rear view mirror.
So, what is next for the Michigan State basketball team? Once again, let’s dig into the numbers to see what we can learn about this final leg of the Big Ten regular season.
Quick Odds Update
Below are the updated enhanced Big Ten standings and Big Ten win distributions in Tables 1 and 2.
In addition, today I will also show the visual of the Big Ten luck metric, which is based on the data shown above in Table 1.
From the standings, we can see that MSU is now in ninth place in the the conference. From the odds distribution table, we can see that it is likely that the Spartans should stay in this part of the standings, even if the Green and White get swept by the Wolverines.
Indiana has less than a 30 percent chance to tie MSU in the win column, and even if they do, MSU would still retain at least the No. 10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament due to Minnesota’s loss to Penn State on Wednesday night. If MSU were to tie with Indiana in the win column, Indiana would get the tie breaker due to win percentage, as the Hoosiers will only play 19 conference games.
From the win distribution table, we can now see the exact odds for the three possible results of the home-at-home series with Michigan. MSU has a one percent chance to win both, a 22 percent chance to split and a 77 percent chance to get swept. If we add the odds that Illinois beats Ohio State (53 percent) the results say that Michigan still has a 99.5 percent chance to win the Big Ten outright.
Finally, I will just point out that over the course of a month, the Spartans have moved from the least lucky team in the Big Ten to the second most lucky. Based on expected value, MSU has now won a game-and-half more than it should have. While in reality this is likely a combination of actual luck and a newly found grit, it is certainly notable.
Big Ten Tournament Projections
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because only 127 total Big Ten games have been played (93 percent of the season). When ESPN, FOX, or the Big Ten Network show the graphic of the Big Ten Tournament seeds “if the season ended today,” it is more-or-less a meaningless exercise, because it is referencing a scenario that cannot exist in reality (an incomplete season).
It is far better to project the results of the remaining games to really understand what the final tournament bracket is likely to look like. I provide that data and analysis below in Table 3.
As I mentioned in my previous update, beating Indiana was huge because it virtually guarantees that Michigan State gets at least the No. 10 seed and thus does not have to start Big Ten Tournament play until Thursday in Indianapolis. For a team that is struggling with fatigue and tired legs, this is a big, big deal.
In addition, MSU will also now almost certainly play another team in the top 50 of the NET rankings, which means there will no longer be a concern about taking a “bad loss” before Selection Sunday. That is also a major positive.
At the top of the conference, the top three seeds are virtually settled as No. 1 Michigan, No. 2 Illinois, and No. 3 Iowa, with Purdue now with the upper hand to claim the No. 4 seed if the Boilermakers can take care of Indiana this weekend or if Illinois beats Ohio State. The bottom of the bracket is also almost fixed with Northwestern and Nebraska almost locked in to the bottom two seeds.
Seeds No. 6 to No. 12 are all still somewhat up for grabs. As for the Spartans, I have further broken down the odds for MSU’s potential seed and first round opponents below in Table 4:
Right now, Michigan State is mostly likely to face Rutgers on Thursday (56 percent) in the No. 8 / No. 9 match-up, although the odds of facing Maryland (40 percent) on Thursday are not far behind. If MSU were to lose out and slip to the No. 10 seed by virtue of Indiana upsetting Purdue, there is a chance that the Spartans would face Wisconsin (four percent) on Thursday instead.
Note that there are a very small number of other very low probability cases where MSU could draw the No. 7 seed and in this scenario the opponent on Thursday would be Indiana.
Out of curiosity, I also ran a simulation of the results of the Big Ten tournament using the seeds for the mostly likely single scenario (where the favorites all win). The results of that simulation are shown below in Table 5.
Michigan State’s current Kenpom efficiency is still lagging behind some of the other Big Ten teams near MSU in the standings, and as a result, MSU’s projected odds are still vanishingly small 0.13 percent). That said, even if the Spartans can suddenly start playing as efficiently as a team like Wisconsin has, on average, the odds that the Spartans could win four games in four days are still likely less than five percent.
When I put all of this information together, I have my revised Tournament streak dashboard as shown in Figure 2:
As usual, the data here is a mixed bag. Based on MSU’s Kenpom rating of No. 60 (and similarly low NET ranking of No. 72) there is certainly reason for concern. That said, the two other metrics that I set as benchmarks: the odds of going 8-12 or getting a top-10 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, have already been cleared. So, which is it. Are the Spartans in or out?
The honest answer is that no one knows. Some pundits (such as ESPN’s Joe Lunardi) seem to have moved MSU back into the tournament from the bubble after the win over Indiana. Other pundits (such as Jerry Palm of CBS Sports) have had MSU safely in the field since the win over Ohio State.
But, the only people whose opinion really matters are the members of the actual NCAA Selection Committee and the metrics that they value seem to change slightly form year to year. If this committee believes that metrics such as the raw NET ranking and maybe Kenpom ranking are the most important, MSU could be in trouble still.
However, if they value quality wins, avoiding bad losses, winning on the road, and finishing in the top-10 in the most difficult leagues in the entire Kenpom era (since 2002), then Michigan State could be safe even now. Furthermore, if they consider that the Spartans’ performance was clearly negatively affected by the COVID-19 pause, much like teams are sometimes impacted by injuries, that could play in MSU’s favor.
If MSU were to win at least one more game, I would be shocked if they were left out of the NCAA Tournament. As such, I have replaced the odds to win the Big Ten Tournament in the dashboard with the odds that MSU wins at least one more game this year (including in the Big Ten Tournament, based on the data in the section above). Those odds are also now squarely at 50-50.
If you want my honest opinion, I think that Michigan State is already safe. But then again, I am an optimist. I would certainly feel a lot better about this prediction if MSU were to win one or two or three more games here in the regular season and/or the Big Ten Tournament. The next chance to achieve that goal will take place Thursday night in Ann Arbor.
Just to make things easier on the committee, I say we just go out and beat those Wolverines, possibly more than once. What do you say?