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Michigan State Basketball Analysis: NCAA Tournament Comebacks and Heartbreaks

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It’s called March Madness for a reason. Let’s take a look back at MSU’s most unlikely NCAA Tournament wins and losses.

Middle Tennessee v Michigan State Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The NCAA Tournament is called March Madness for a reason. The drama is real. Any given year will produce more than a handful of buzzer-beaters, Cinderella stories, and epic come-from-behind stunners. The Michigan State Spartans fell victim to one of the those come-from-behind heartbreakers in First Four round loss to UCLA.

In my previous contribution, I highlighted Michigan State’s two biggest heartbreaks and one biggest comebacks since 2010. I measured the “size” of these events using the projected in-game win probabilities tabulated by Kenpom.com. In order to be considered a truly “big” reversal of fortune, one team had to have at least a 96 percent chance to win the game at some point in the contest.

While none of Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament wins or losses made this list, wins and losses in the Big Dance are ultimately how most MSU seasons are remembered. This begs the obvious question: what are some of the most improbable NCAA Tournament comebacks and heartbreaks of the last 11 year? Once again, math will lead the way.

Biggest Heartbreaks

Since it is always best to start with the bad news, let’s cover the biggest heartbreaks, starting with fourth least likely:

No. 4, 2014 Elite Eight: No. 7 UCONN 60, No. 4 Michigan State 54

Maximum win probability: 85.6 percent (MSU led 32-23, 16:33 second half)

While this game ranks as the fourth least likely Spartan loss in the NCAA Tournament since 2010, it is likely the most painful, as it is the loss that had the most at stake: a trip to the Final Four. It also cost Tom Izzo one of his most cherished streaks as Keith Appling and Adreian Payne became the first (and only) four-year players not to advance to the final weekend of the tournament at least once in their career.

It was an up-and-down season for Michigan State all the way around in the 2013-2014 campaign. The Spartans opened the season ranked No. 2 in the country, but rose quickly to No. 1 after beating No. 1 Kentucky in the Champions Classic. In late January, MSU was 18-1 but then the injury bug struck both Payne and Brandon Dawson (in addition to Appling, who was injured in the preseason against North Carolina and never fully healed).

The Spartans finished Big Ten play at 12-6, which was good enough for a second-place tie with Wisconsin in the conference standings. But, MSU tore through the Big Ten Tournament, including a decisive 14-point win over No. 1 seed Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament Final. The Spartans entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed. On Selection Sunday, if memory serves, the ESPN analysts all picked the Spartans to win the whole thing.

Michigan State dispatched No. 13 seed Delaware and No. 12 seed Harvard in the first two rounds, and then upset No. 1 seed Virginia in the Sweet 16 to force the showdown with the No. 7 seed UCONN Huskies. MSU was a five-point favorite when the ball was tipped.

As for the game itself, MSU got off to a very bad start, and trailed 12-2 just five minutes into the game. But, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine, and Payne started to heat up especially from three-point range, and the Spartans got back into the game, eventually taking the lead by four at halftime, and extending that lead to nine points early in the second half, thanks to a 16-2 run.

But, the Spartans then went cold, and Shabazz Napier of UCONN started hitting shots and drawing fouls. With six minutes left, MSU trailed by 10. The Spartans did manage to cut the lead to just two points during one stretch, but could not get over the hump, and the Huskies were the ones cutting down the nets in Madison Square Garden.

No. 3, 2018 2nd Round: No. 11 Syracuse 55, Michigan State 53

Maximum win probability: 88.7 percent (MSU led 33-27, 17:29 second half)

Miles Bridges decided to return to East Lansing for his sophomore year, and Jaren Jackson Jr. was a highly-touted recruit, so Michigan State fans all had big expectations. The Spartans started the year ranked No. 2, and although the Green and White did lose to Duke in the Champions Classic, MSU tore through the rest of its schedule, won the Big Ten regular season title outright, and entered the NCAA Tournament with a 29-4 record.

But, the Big Ten was unusually weak, and the Spartans lost to the Wolverines in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. As a result MSU was only given a No. 3 seed in the Big Dance. The Spartans won a hard fought game with No. 14 seed Bucknell in the first round, and up next was No. 11 Syracuse. MSU was favored by eight points.

What transpired was one of the ugliest tournament games in recent memory. The Spartans shot just 26 percent from the field and a miserable 22 percent from three-point range. The Orange didn’t shoot much better, however. MSU actually led most of the game, and had a five-point lead with under six minutes to play.

But, somehow the Spartans proceeded to miss their final 13 shots from the field and let the game slip through their fingers, much to the shock of the fans in Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit.

No. 2, 2021 First Four: No. 11 UCLA 86, No. 11 Michigan St. 80 (OT)

Maximum win probability: 90.8 percent (led 77-72, 01:29 second half)

If the thought crossed your mind if MSU’s collapse against UCLA in this past year’s First Four matchup was one of the biggest letdowns in Spartan history, then you were correct. After leading by as many as 14 points late in the first half, UCLA stormed back and took the lead briefly with just under six minutes to play.

But, the Spartans fought back and led by five points just under 90 seconds remaining. While the game should have been in hand, a pair of fouls from Josh Langford and Aaron Henry, a badly missed three-pointer from Rocket Watts, and a missed box out on a free throw allowed UCLA to tie the game late and eventually win the game in overtime.

It was a painful and perhaps ironically fitting ending to a difficult, inconsistent season for the Spartans.

No. 1, 2016 First Round: No. 15 Middle Tennessee 90, No. 2 Michigan St. 81

Maximum win probability: 95.2 percent (tied 0-0, 20:00 first half).

But, the UCLA loss in 2021 was not the most painful loss in Michigan State NCAA Tournament history. On one hand, the choice of game for the No. 1 spot on this list is obvious. The 2016 team’s loss to Middle Tennessee State is one of the biggest upset losses in the history of the tournament. On the other hand, though, this was not a late game collapse. MSU actually never led for a second of this game, and the odds for a Spartan win peaked at the opening tip.

Similar to the 2014 team’s loss in the Regional Final, this loss was painful because Michigan State seemed poised to make a long run in the tournament, and perhaps add a Final Four banner or a crystal basketball to the Breslin Center trophy case. It was the senior season for both Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes, and when the Spartans were fully healthy, they cut through their opponents like knives through warm butter.

But, not on that particular Friday afternoon. The Blue Raiders jumped the Spartans from the opening tip with a 15-2 run and they never looked back. While the Spartans fought back and got the game within a single point on a number of occasions, including as late as three-and-a-half minutes to play, MSU could never capture the lead and could never get the key stop when the team needed it. The Spartans actually shot the ball quite well (63 percent from two-point range and 46 percent from three), but the Blue Raiders shot it even better (55 percent from two, and a blistering 58 percent from three).

But the cherry on the top of this very frustrating event was that the matchup should never have taken place to begin with. Michigan State should have been a No. 1 seed instead of a No. 2 seed, Middle Tennessee should have at least been a No. 14 seed, and even if I agreed with the Selection Committee’s rankings, the Blue Raiders (as the highest ranked No. 15 seed) should not have been matched up with the Spartans (the highest ranked No. 2 seed) based on the “s-curve.”

Enough of the low points. Let us shift gears to review the most exciting comebacks in recent Michigan State tournament history.

Biggest Comebacks

No. 5, 2010 Sweet 16: No. 5 Michigan St. 59, No. 9 Northern Iowa 52

Minimum win probability: 25.6 percent (trailed 29-22, 20:00 second half)

I had forgotten that Michigan State trailed at the half in this game. It was also tied with just under three minutes to play, but MSU closed on an 8-1 run to seal the victory.

No. 4, 2014 Sweet 16: No. 4 Michigan St. 61, No. 1 Virginia 59

Minimum win probability: 24.7 percent (trailed 40-36, 10:58 second half)

In this classic rock-fight win over Virginia, MSU led by 10 points early, but a 12-0 run by the Cavaliers got them back into the game. Being down only four points to the Virginia feels bigger than against most teams, but the Spartans answered with a 15-4 run of their own midway through the second half to steal the victory.

No. 3, 2019 Elite Eight: No. 2 Michigan St. 68, No. 1 Duke 67

Minimum win probability: 22.7 percent (trailed 66-63, 01:41 second half)

This game will and has gone down in history as one of the most exciting and satisfying wins in Michigan State basketball history. Every Spartan fan remembers how this one ended. We remember the three-point shot from Kenny Goins and in-bounds pass from Xavier Tillman to Cassius Winston to seal the win.

But, what you may not remember is that this was also a game of runs. Michigan State got off to a strong start and led Duke 16-9 eight minutes into the game. But, Duke went on a run of its own and led by as many as nine points just three minutes later. But unlike previous MSU-Duke games, the Spartans answered with a 15-0 run to take the lead at the half, and it was a dog-fight from that point on.

In fact, in the final 18 minutes of the game, neither team led by more than four points. So, when Duke went up by three points with just 100 seconds remaining on a drive from Zion Williamson, MSU fans began to sweat, and for good reason: the odds of victory dipped below 25 percent.

But, Winston drove into the lane, drew three defenders, and found a slashing Tillman for a lay-up to cut the lead down to one point. Then, the Spartans got a stop, which set up Goins’ game-winning three-pointer. A few minutes later, the Spartans were cutting down the nets.

No. 2, 2015 Elite Eight: No. 7 Michigan St. 76, No. 4 Louisville 70 (OT)

Minimum win probability: 20.7 percent (trailed 40-32, 20:00 second half)

In my previous analysis, I explained how the 2015 Michigan State team suffered the two biggest heartbreaks for any MSU team back to at least 2010. But in the NCAA Tournament during the 2015 team’s run to the Final Four, it was the Green and White who were handing out heartbreaks.

Despite being the lower seed in this regional final matchup, the Spartans were two-point favorites in Las Vegas. The early moments of the game were a back-and-forth affair, but the Cardinals made a late push in the first half as the Spartans went cold, and by halftime, MSU trailed by eight and things looked a bit grim.

But, the Spartans traded punches with the Cardinals early in the second half and then went on 14-2 run and held a six-point lead as late in the game as with just under four minutes to play. But Louisville wasn’t done yet, either.

A three-pointer and then two free throws from Wayne Blackshear gave Louisville a one-point lead with a minute to play. A jumper off the backboard by Marvin Clark gave the lead back to MSU, but then disaster almost struck.

The Cardinal missed their next shot, Clark got the rebound and was immediately fouled. But, he missed both free throws to give Louisville a chance to get the last shot and win the game in regulation. Terry Rozier missed a shot to win, but Mangok Mathiang snagged the rebound and was fouled by Clark.

With a chance to win the game, Mathiang (whose season average at the line was only 48 percent) split the pair of free throws to force overtime. In that extra period, Bryn Forbes set the tone with an early three-pointer, and the Spartans never trailed again. Izzo put a seventh Final Four onto his resume.

No. 1, 2015 Sweet 16: No. 7 Michigan St. 62, No. 3 Oklahoma 58

Minimum win probability: 18.1 percent (trailed 31-21, 03:33 first half)

Based on probability, the most unlikely NCAA Tournament comeback in recent Michigan State history is likely a game that many Spartans fans barely remember. It was the game that came right before the Spartans beat Louisville in 2015 to make the Final Four. Similar to the game against the Cardinals, the Spartan were also favored in Vegas to beat the Sooners (+1.5) despite being the lower seed.

In the Sweet 16 round, the Spartans got off to a much slower start. Five minutes into the game, the Sooners led by 10 points, and they maintained this lead until just four minutes before halftime. At this point in the game, the Spartans odds to advance was below 20 percent, making the eventual Spartan victory the least probable comeback of any of Coach Izzo’s NCAA Tournament wins since 2010.

By halftime, the Spartans had cut the lead to just four points, thanks to a pair the three-pointers from Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes. From there, the Spartans simply kept fighting, and eventually took the lead with about 10 minutes to go. With just under seven minutes to play, a Matt Costello dunk off of his own missed shot, followed by a three-pointer from Valentine gave the Spartans a four-point lead. MSU did not trail again.

Other Odds and Ends

While MSU has certainly had a fair share of exciting and improbable regular season and NCAA Tournament comebacks and heartbreaks, the least likely tournament event listed above is the upset loss to Middle Tennessee State, which still had odds of just 1-in-20. In the grand scheme of things, this is not that unlikely. In this final section, I wanted to highlight a few less probable tournament events involving notable teams as a reference.

What is the most unlikely NCAA Tournament comeback since 2010?

Answer: 2016 Second Round: No. 3 Texas A&M 92, No. 11 Northern Iowa 88 (2OT)

Minimum win probability: 0.1 percent (Texas A&M trailed 69-59, 00:33 second half)

Yes, you read that right. Texas A&M trailed by 10 points with just over 30 seconds left in regulation...and found a way to force overtime and eventually win.

The Michigan Difference

As any Wolverine fans will tell you, Michigan made the Final Four in both 2013 and 2018. Along the way, however, both runs included highly unlikely comeback victories. First there was:

2013 Sweet 16: No. 4 Michigan 87, No. 1 Kansas 85 (OT)

Minimum win probability: 1.2 percent (Michigan trailed 72-62, 02:33 second half)

Michigan trailed this game by double-digits most of the second half, but Trey Burke put the Wolverines on his back late in the game. Still, Kansas had a chance to ice the game late, but Elijah Johnson (a 76 percent free-throw shooter on the year) missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12 seconds remaining, and Burke proceeded to hit a three-pointer from the hash mark to send it to overtime.

Next, there was:

2018 Second Round: No. 3 Michigan 64, No. 6 Houston 63

Minimum win probability: 4.5 percent (Michigan trailed 63-61, 00:06 second half)

This game was tight throughout, with neither team holding more than a six-point lead at any juncture. But in the closing seconds, the Cougars simply could put the Wolverines away. In the final 30 seconds of the game, Houston’s Devin Davis (a 68 percent free-throw shooter on the year) didn’t just miss one free throw — he actually missed three out of four.

With Michigan trailing by just two points, Jordan Poole’s near half-court heave was enough to hand the Wolverines the victory. Michigan would then advance to the final game without playing a team seeded higher than No. 7.

How about Virginia?

Of all of the teams to make a Final Four back to 2010, Michigan’s two close calls rank first and third in their unlikeliness. But the team that owns the heartbreak that sits in second place in the list of unlikely comebacks during a Final Four run is Virginia. Upon closer examination, that Cavaliers have had an absolutely crazy run of both ups and downs since 2014. Consider the following:

  • In 2014, as discussed above, No. 1 Virginia lost to MSU by two points, but at one point had nearly a 75 percent chance to win.
  • In 2015, No. 2 Virginia also lost to No. 7 MSU, this time by six, but they were projected to have about a 75 percent chance to win at the tip.
  • In 2016, No. 1 Virginia had a 15-point lead on No. 10 Syracuse deep into the second half. With 9:32 remaining, the Cavaliers had approximately a 98.7 percent chance to win...They lost, putting Syracuse in the rarified air of teams including only Michigan that have advanced to a Final Four despite having less than a five percent chance to win one of the games on their path.
  • In 2017, No. 5 Virginia was not very good and got blown out by No. 4 Florida in the second round.
  • In 2018, No. 1 Virginia lost to No. 16 UMBC, making history as the first and so far only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed. As a general rule, the odds of a No. 16/No. 1 seed upset are about one percent, but Kenpom gave UMBC 2.5 percent odds at the tip to score the upset.

But in 2019, Virginia’s luck made a complete turnaround.

  • Eight Eight: In one of the best single tournament games that I can remember, No. 1 Virginia beat No. 3 Purdue in overtime, but the Cavaliers trailed by three points with 12 seconds to go and had only a 12.2 percent chance to win (note that Purdue fouled while up three, and still lost. #teamdefend).
  • Final Four: In this case, No. 1 Virginia trailed No. 5 Auburn by four points with 17 seconds remaining. UVA hit a three, Auburn missed a free throw and then Virginia was fouled shooting a three-pointer at the buzzer. The Cavaliers hit all three freebies to win the game, despite having only a 5.5 percent chance to win 17 seconds earlier
  • Championship Game: Finally, No. 1 Virginia trailed No. 3 Texas Tech by three points with 22 seconds left. UVA’s odds to win were a healthy 13 percent here. The Cavaliers hit a three to force overtime, and the rest is history.

Unfortunately for Virginia, it seems to have used up all of its good fortune in 2019. In 2021, the Cavs reverted to their previous pattern, as they were upset by No. 13 Ohio in the first round. With 15 minutes to play, their win probability was over 90 percent.

That is all for today. As always, enjoy, and Go Green.