The Michigan State Spartans’ final conference road game in Ann Arbor on Thursday night did not go quite as well as we had hoped. As a result, the Michigan Wolverines are the 2021 Big Ten Champs and Michigan State is still now quite squarely on the bubble. Fortunately, most pundits still seem to have MSU at least in the “Last Four In” category.
A win on Thursday would have been awesome. It would have very likely iced an NCAA Tournament bid and it possibly would have forced the Wolverines to get a win in East Lansing in order to hang a banner. That would have been fun, but unfortunately it was not meant to be.
But, as the old saying goes, “if first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The Spartans may have been outclassed on Thursday, but when the teams meet again in East Lansing, there is at least a chance things will turn out differently.
If MSU can find a way to shoot the ball a bit better, scrap a little harder for rebounds and loose balls, and defend more effectively, the Green and White absolutely have a chance. Basically, the Spartans need to play like they did against Illinois and at Indiana. Is that going to be possible with so little cumulative rest over the past two weeks? It is hard to say, but never count out Coach Tom Izzo.
As we await the final game at the Breslin Center this year and as the Big Ten regular season draws to a close, let’s take one more look at the numbers to get a feeling of where things are headed, starting with the standings and expected wins.
Quick Odds Update
With so few games remaining and with the unbalanced schedule, the standings and win distribution matrix is not that useful anymore. So, I will just show them here without much comment.
With the loss on Thursday night, the Spartans are guaranteed to finish below .500 in conference play for the first time ever in Tom Izzo’s career.
Big Ten Tournament Odds
With the Big Ten regular season race now officially over, we can turn the focus exclusively on the postseason, starting with the Big Ten Tournament. Table 3 below gives the updated Big Ten Tournament seeding odds.
We are starting to see a few teams locked into seeds. Michigan is now officially the No. 1 seed, Illinois is the No. 2 seed, and Nebraska is the No. 14 seed. Seven of the other seeds are determined with about a 70 percent level of certainty.
The No. 12 and No. 13 seed has yet to be sorted out, but those two teams will face each other anyway, so it is really just a question of jersey color. The No. 7 to No. 9 seeds are in the greatest flux, and Michigan State is right in the middle of the fray. So, it makes sense to break down those scenarios in more detail.
There are a grand total of only seven Big Ten games remaining on the schedule, and only five of them will impact MSU’s final seed and opponent. Those games are:
- Saturday, noon: Rutgers at Minnesota (+1)
- Saturday, 2:00 p.m.: Indiana at Purdue (-6)
- Sunday, 12:30 p.m.: Wisconsin at Iowa (-6.5)
- Sunday, 4:30 p.m.: Michigan at Michigan State (+11)
- Sunday, 7:00 p.m. Penn State at Maryland (-3)
The points spreads shown above are projected, based on Kenpom efficiency data. Based on these five games, there are a total of 32 different possible outcomes, which I have summarize below in Table 4. I am doing my best here to channel my inner “SpartanDan,” a TOC alumnus who has provided similar data on Twitter for years.
As you can see, it is really quite complicated. From a big picture point of view, there is a 76 percent chance that MSU will play in the No. 8/No. 9 seed game, which tips at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday. If MSU were to win that game, the Spartans would once again face Michigan. If at first you don’t succeed...?
As a general rule, if Purdue beats Indiana on Saturday, MSU is locked into the No. 8/No. 9 game. But, even if Indiana wins, it does not mean that the Spartans automatically drops to the No. 10 seed. There is still a roughly 15 percent chance that MSU would end up as No. 8 or No. 9 seed, but all of those scenarios involve MSU beating Michigan.
Regarding MSU’s possible opponent, there is roughly a 55 percent chance that it will be Rutgers, a 40 percent chance that it will be Maryland, and a five percent chance that it will be Wisconsin.
I should also note that I have highlighted the odds of the top-four most likely scenarios. It total, there is a 45 percent chance that one of those four scenarios will be the final outcome. The common theme with those scenarios are that Purdue, Iowa, and Michigan all win over the weekend. If this comes to pass, the Maryland versus Penn State game will determine MSU’s first Big Ten Tournament opponent. If Penn State wins, it will be Maryland and if Maryland wins, it will be Rutgers.
As for MSU’s chances against the three possible first opponents, the current projected spreads and odds on a neutral court would be:
- MSU (+6) vs. Wisconsin (27 percent odds for MSU to win)
- MSU (+3.5) vs. Maryland (36 percent)
- MSU (+3) vs. Rutgers (39 percent)
As it stands now, if all of the favorites win in the five games listed above, MSU will face Rutgers on Thursday at 11:30 a.m. in the No. 8/No. 9 seed game. As it would appear, this would give MSU the best possible chance to earn another victory and most likely extend the NCAA Tournament streak.
As the end of the regular season draws near, there are three questions on my mind about MSU basketball. In closing, I would like to explore those questions now.
1) Will Michigan State make the NCAA Tournament?
The answer is that only the committee really knows. Most pundits (including myself) have come to the conclusion that MSU likely needs just one more win to feel safe on Selection Sunday. If that win comes on Sunday against the Wolverines, that would be great. Otherwise, MSU would be wise to beat either Maryland or Rutgers on Thursday of next week.
That said, there is a part of me that thinks MSU might be safe already. The Spartans have more high quality wins and an equal or fewer number of bad losses than any other bubble team. Furthermore, several other bubble teams have taken bad losses over the last week or so, and it is not clear to me who would actually take MSU’s spot.
Boise State? The Broncos just lost three in a row, including a bad loss to Fresno State. Xavier? The Musketeers have lost two of their last three against Providence and Georgetown. Seton Hall? Losers of the last three. Utah State? St. Louis? I have a hard time imagining any of those teams jumping Michigan State. Furthermore, all of the bubble teams, by definition, will lose at least one more time in their conference tournament (or they would be the automatic qualifier). Those teams all will have limited chances to make up ground on MSU.
But, Michigan State’s NET ranking of 74 is very low, and it MSU loses out, a final record of 14-13 does not look great. That is the biggest concern right now. If the committee believes that overall record and the NET is important, MSU is in some trouble. If the committee is more interested in quality wins and recognizes that MSU has been impacted by COVID more so than other teams, then I think the Spartans may already be safe....but I would not bet on it.
2) Will Michigan State have enough time to rest up?
By the end of the day on Sunday, the Spartans will have played seven games over 16 days. It is easy to spot the signs of fatigue over the past few games. This team clearly has tired legs. Fortunately the gauntlet is almost over.
The Spartans will have a full three days off before starting the Big Ten Tournament just a few hours down the road in Indianapolis. Will this be enough time to fully (or even partially) recharge? While that is not a lot of time, it is more time than MSU has had since the game at Indiana, and it is certainly better than starting play on Wednesday.
Maybe after playing so many games on one or two days rest, a three-day break might feel like a week. Hopefully for at least a 40-minute span, the Spartans can regain some of the form that we saw against Illinois and Ohio State. A NCAA Tournament bid might just depend on it.
If MSU were to win that opening round game, the rest of the Big Ten Tournament is essentially gravy. If the Spartans were to lose on Friday to (most likely) Michigan, it would not be all bad. The extra rest would certainly be welcome.
If MSU does make the Tournament, the Spartans would then have at least five and as many as seven full days of rest before their first NCAA Tournament game, even if it is in the First Four, which starts on Thursday, March 18 this year. At this point, MSU would have perhaps only played one or two games in a span of 12 days. By then, the Spartans might look quite a bit different, and they might be quite a bit more dangerous.
3) Can Michigan State go on another run in March?
Let’s just assume for a moment that Michigan State does make it into the NCAA Tournament. Does this team have what it takes to go on a run? I will make the argument that it can.
We have already seen this team play at a very high level in several games this year. One of them was just last week against a potential No. 1 seed in Illinois. The Spartans then followed that up with a gritty win over another potential No. 1 seed in Ohio State.
While both of these games were at home, I have seen enough to believe that this team does have the capability to win more than one or two games in the NCAA Tournament. We all know that this team has flaws, especially at the point guard and center positions. We all know that this team struggles to shoot and to find anyone other than Aaron Henry to be a consistent option on offense.
However, we have also seen almost every member of the roster flash with some very high-level play. If the team is able to catch up on rest, get back into the practice gym, and find a way to get three or four guys peaking, then all of the sudden this becomes a very dangerous team that no one will want to face.
It is also certainly possible that MSU could be given a fairly advantageous seed. If MSU were to draw a No. 11 seed, at worse the Spartans would face a No. 6 seed (such as Oklahoma, USC, or Virginia Tech) and followed by a No. 3 seed (such as Florida State, Arkansas, or West Virginia). Granted, MSU would not be favored against ANY of those teams. But, let’s be honest, none of those coaches would be thrilled to see Tom Izzo in their bracket, either.
If MSU were to escape the first weekend (and get yet more rest), could the Spartans hang with a No. 2 seed? Well, Ohio State and Iowa are on the two-line right now, and MSU has shown that it can play with those teams in at least two of three chances. How about a No. 1 seed? See: Illinois, Breslin Center, Feb 23, 2021.
Of course, this is a very optimistic take on the future trajectory of this season. That is kind of my thing. I will also admit that, it certainly possible that the Spartans simply burned too much fuel over the past two weeks and have nothing left to give. A few days of rest might simply not be enough. We might not see this team win another game and I might need to create a new spreadsheet to simulate the NIT Tournament.
But, we have also seen Coach Izzo work his magic in March before. A few weeks ago, just talking about a tournament bid seemed like fantasy. I never gave up. You shouldn’t either.
That’s all for today. Until next time, Go State, Beat Michigan!