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Michigan State Basketball Analysis: Regular Season Comebacks and Heartbreaks

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College sports are full of crazy finishes. Some finishes are crazier than others. Can we quantify our joy (or pain)? Of course we can!

Georgia v Michigan State Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

For fans of the Michigan State Spartans, the 2020-2021 basketball season was full of highs and lows. Beating Duke in Cameron Indoor Arena and beating three top-10 teams, including rival Michigan, in the span of two weeks were clearly highs. Losing heartbreakers to Purdue, and later to UCLA in the First Four, were clearly lows.

As with most things sports related, I wonder whether the thrills and pain of these highs and lows can actually be quantified. I am especially curious about the events that are less likely, and therefore more thrilling...or more painful. I am curious about quantifying big comebacks and crushing heartbreaks.

The home loss to the Purdue Boilermaker just before Michigan State was shutdown by the COVID-19 pause is a perfect example. The Spartans led by 17 points early in the second half, and although the Boilermakers did rally, MSU held a three-point lead with less than 20 seconds on the clock and Aaron Henry heading to the free-throw line.

The Spartans seemed to have the game locked up, but a missed free throw, a foul, a turnover, a missed box out, and a basket from Trevion Williams resulted in a stunning come-from-behind victory for Purdue. It was a series of unfortunate and improbable events. But, how improbable was in?

Through the magic of analytics it is possible to quantify our pain. ESPN’s Gamecast gives real-time estimates of the odds for each team to win as the game progresses. Kenpom.com provides a similar set of data once the game in complete.

To my knowledge, neither site gives a detailed explanation of how these numbers are calculated, but I guess that it is related to a combination of the offensive and defensive efficiency of each team, the projected number of remaining possessions, and historical data based on similar margins and time remaining.

In the Purdue game, ESPN’s calculation gave MSU about an 87 percent chance to win with 19 seconds remaining. Kempon was more optimistic about the Spartans’ chances. Kempon’s calculation gave MSU over 96 percent chance to win at the same juncture, which made it one of the top-100 biggest comebacks/heartbreaks of the entire 2020-2021 season.

I can’t judge whether EPSN’s or Kenpom’s method is better, but I do know that Kempon has more data. The Kempon website provides win probability data back to 2010. With this data, we can get answers to the question: what are some of the biggest (probability-wise) comebacks and heartbreaks in recent Spartan basketball history?

Regular Season Heartbreaks and Comebacks

In order to make Kenpom’s top-100 comeback list, a team’s win probability usually needs to dip below four percent (or above 96 percent from the other team’s point of view) in order to make the list in a full season. Since 2010, Michigan State only has three total games that fall into this category: one comeback and two heartbreaks. Let’s start with the heartbreaks.

December 20, 2014: Texas Southern 71, 12 Michigan State 64 (OT)

Maximum win probability: 98.8 percent (MSU led 17-9, 09:04 1st half)

The Spartans came into the game with an 8-3 record and No. 25 national ranking. It was Travis Trice’s senior year and Michigan State entered the season ranked in the top-20, following a run to the Elite Eight the year prior. MSU had beaten Marquette earlier in the non-conference season, but had lost its three other premier games against Duke, Kansas, and Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, Texas Southern was 1-7, fresh off from a 40-point beat down at the hands of Gonzaga. But, at the time, the Tigers were led by head coach Mike Davis, who had piloted Indiana to a Final Four over a decade prior, and is currently the head coach at the University of Detroit Mercy.

MSU was a 24-point favorite, and thus only had about a one percent chance to lose the game based on the spread. This spread puts this upset into the same category as a No. 16 over a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, probability-wise. It is also the biggest upset for the Spartans back to at least 2004.

As for the game itself, the Spartans were without senior forward Brandon Dawson, who had broken his wrist in the previous game against Eastern Michigan. The Spartans got off to a good start, but could never get a lead greater than eight points. MSU led by five points at halftime, and even led by six points with four minutes remaining.

But, the Spartans struggled down the stretch and found themselves trailing 55-54, but with the ball, with under 25 seconds to play. Matt Costello missed a shot that would gave given the Spartans the lead, but Javon Bess snagged the rebound and was fouled. He split the free throws, however, and the game headed for overtime.

In the overtime period, Michigan State just never figured it out. The Spartans missed shots; missed free throws, and fouled Texas Southern. The Tigers outscored Michigan State 16-9 in the extra period and shocked the MSU on own court.

The final box score shows that Texas Southern shot 53 percent from the field while MSU just shot 39 percent, including a dismal 3-for-13 shooting performance from Travis Trice, while Bryn Forbes made just one shot on nine attempts (all from three). Those are the type of stats that create big upsets.

February 26, 2105: Minnesota 96, Michigan St. 90 (OT)

Maximum win probability: 98.9 percent (MSU led 75-69, 00:34 2nd half)

Interestingly, Michigan State’s largest heartbreak since 2010 also happened to the 2014-2015 team, this time deep into the Big Ten season. The Spartans had largely rebounded from the earlier heartbreak to Texas Southern and were sitting at 19-8 overall and 10-4 in conference play, vying with Maryland and Purdue for second place in the conference behind Bo Ryan’s best Wisconsin team.

The Spartans were an eight-point favorite at the tip, so it wasn’t a huge upset. But, what puts this game on the list of biggest heartbreaks is what happened in the final seconds. Similar to the 2021 game against Purdue, the Spartans snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

As in the loss to Texas Southern, MSU led most of the game, but could never push the lead past eight points. With 30 seconds remaining, and trailing by six points, the Gophers used the three-point line to stage the comeback. First, it was a made three-point field goal from Carlos Morris. Then, it was three free throws after Brandon Dawson fouled Joey King.

On the other end of the court, Denzel Valentine made three of four free throws, leaving the score 78-75 with 12 seconds to play. Tom Izzo decided to defend rather than foul (which is still the right decision, despite popular opinion, don’t @ me) and the worst case scenario almost played out. Morris hit a three with three seconds on the clock and he was fouled by Gavin Shilling on a late close-out.

Morris missed a free throw which would have won the game in regulation, but the Gophers dominated the overtime period, mostly from the free throw line. Minnesota scored 14 of its 18 points from the charity stripe in the extra period to stun the Spartans by six.

Ironically, most Spartans fans likely have forgotten about these two crushing losses due to the way that that the 2015 season ended. MSU would go on to lose only three more games: one at Wisconsin, another to Wisconsin in overtime of the Big Ten Tournament Final, and one to Duke in the Final Four. In other words, Minnesota was the final loss of the season that wasn’t to an eventual No. 1 seed and National Finalist.

But, it isn’t all bad new for the Spartans when it comes to regular season comebacks and heartbreaks. Let’s close out things on a more positive note:

January 11, 2011: Michigan St. 64, Wisconsin 61 (OT)

Minimum win probability: 2.4 percent (trailed 53-44, 02:37 2nd half)

The 2010-2011 season was a rough one for Spartan fans. The team was coming off back-to-back Final Fours in 2009 and 2010, and major contributors such as Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Draymond Green were all back. Coach Izzo had also added potential stars in the making in point guard Keith Appling and Adreian Payne who were both freshman.

The Spartan’s opened the season ranked No. 2, but the non-conference schedule went very poorly. The Spartans lost in the Maui Tournament semifinals to UCONN, lost at Duke, lost to Syracuse at Madison Square Garden, and then lost to Texas at home.

More recently in that season, the Spartans lost a road game at Penn State and at 10-5 (2-1 in Big Ten play) had fallen out of the top-25 for the first time in almost four years.

As for Wisconsin, the Badgers were having a typically solid, but not spectacular season under head coach Bo Ryan. The Badgers were fresh off from a 16-point win over the Michigan Wolverines and had entered the top-25 for the first time all year at No. 20 and with a 12-3 record (and also 2-1 in Big Ten play).

The Badgers got off to an early lead of as much as 12 points, but the Spartans rallied late in the first half with a 10-0 run that extended into the first few minutes of the second period. The Spartans even led 31-28 at the first media timeout of the second half.

But, from that point on, Wisconsin started to pull away. After a pair of free throws with just over two-and-a-half minutes remaining, MSU trailed 53-44, and defeat seemed inevitable. But, what then ensued was the biggest Spartan comeback in the last 11 seasons, or longer.

It started with a Draymond Green three-pointer to cut the lead to six. Then, the teams traded a few empty possessions until a foul put Lucas on the line. Lucas split the pair to cut the lead to just five points with just under 80 seconds to play. Then, the Badgers got sloppy.

A turnover by Badger forward Jon Leuer resulted in a fast break dunk by Keith Appling to cut the lead down to three. Then, yet another Wisconsin turnover led to a quick three-pointer from Korie Lucious to tie the game with 52 seconds left on the clock. The Spartans had rattled off a 9-0 run in just over 90 seconds.

Wisconsin then milked the clock and attempted a three-pointer with under 20 seconds left. The Badgers missed, and the Spartans then had a great chance to win the game in regulation. Lucas had a shot blocked at the rim, and then a put back attempt from Austin Thorton failed.

The overtime period was tight the entire way, but Lucas drew a key foul on a baseline drive and was able to salt away the win from the free-throw line.

Michigan St. Spartans v Wisconsin Badgers Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The exciting finish looked like it might be the catalyst to turn around MSU’s season, but alas, it was not meant to be. The Spartans went 2-5 over the next seven games and finished the regular season at 9-9 in conference play. It was not clear the the Spartans would even make the NCAA Tournament, but a stunning blowout win over No. 9 ranked Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals sealed the bid for the Spartans.

Sadly, the win over Purdue was the last one for the Spartans, as they bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament in the semifinals to Penn State and then lost in the first round of the Big Dance to No. 7 seed UCLA.

Speaking of UCLA, in 2021 the Spartans suffered another heartbreak loss at the hand of the Bruins in the First Four. Where does this game rank on the list of least probable NCAA Tournament loses for the Green and White. What is the biggest comeback logged under Tom Izzo watch in March? Next time, I will dive into those details. Stay tuned.