Coach Izzo essentially said as much in his postgame press conference. Those watching closely were also not surprised. The Spartans have seemed a bit sluggish and unfocused since Christmas, and it seemed like only a matter of time before it caught up with the tea, in the form of a loss.
Had the Spartans managed to eke out a win against the Wildcats, Michigan State would be alone in first place at the top of the Big Ten conference. But, the problems with turnovers, rebounding and defense would likely have persisted. Now, Izzo will likely have the full attention of his roster and almost a week to tighten some screws before the Spartans hit the road to Madison to play Wisconsin on Friday.
That said, the loss to Northwestern may well end up being very costly. Prior to the loss, the Spartans were projected to have about a 20 percent chance to win or share the regular season title. After the loss? Let’s rerun the numbers and assess the damage.
Enhanced Big Ten Standings and Updated Odds
Table 1 gives the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of Jan. 18.
With 32 percent of the Big Ten season now complete, the good news for Michigan State is that the Spartans are still in a first place tie in the loss column with Illinois and Wisconsin. For better or worse, those also happen to be the next two opponents on MSU’s schedule, with both games being on the road.
The other key point from Table 1 is that despite the Spartans’ disappointing loss this past weekend, Michigan State is still overachieving slightly relative to its current expected win value of 4.52. In other words, MSU currently has about a half of a win more than expected, which is highlighted by the “luck” (otherwise known as “grit”) metric in the table above.
The updated Big Ten win distribution matrix is shown below. I will note that I am currently assuming that the postponed games due to the COVID protocols at Michigan will not be made up. Thus, the expected win comparisons are no longer an apples-to-apples comparison, as several teams are no longer scheduled to play a full 20-game conference schedule. The changes in parenthesis are relative to the previous update on Jan. 7, which was before the Michigan State win over Minnesota.
The Spartans have dropped to No. 6 in the conference based on total expected wins and are now projected to finish with a most likely final record of 12-7 in Big Ten play. The odds of finishing at 13-6 or better are 36 percent and the odds of finishing at 14-5 or better are 19 percent.
Table 3 below gives the updated odds at least share the Big Ten regular season title.
How costly was the loss to Northwestern in terms of the Spartans’ Big Ten title hopes? Michigan State’s odds have been cut by about one-third from a value of over 20 percent to the current value of 7.5 percent. The Spartans’ now have the fifth-best odds behind Illinois, Purdue, Wisconsin and Ohio State.
The data also suggests that the eventual Big Ten regular season champions will likely finish with 16 wins. Based on the now imbalanced schedule, this means that Michigan State might need a record of 16-3 in order to hang a banner in the Breslin Center this year.
Big Ten Tournament and Strengths of Schedule
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because there are still 94 Big Ten games left on the schedule. Fortunately, we can use projected point spreads and simulations to get a sneak peek on how the Big Ten Tournament might play out. Table 4 below summarizes the odds for each team to earn each seed.
The loss to Northwestern (for now) has knocked the Spartans out of the projected top-four teams in the conference. The odds now suggest that Michigan State is most likely to earn the No. 5 seed or the No. 6 seed. However, the math suggests that MSU still has a 43 percent chance to sneak back into the top-four and earn a coveted double bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
Table 5 below gives the odds for each Big Ten team to advance in the Big Ten tournament.
As usual, these odds track closely with the overall Kenpom efficiency margins. Purdue still has the best odds to win the Big Ten Tournament at 35 percent with Illinois in second place at 21 percent. Based on the current Kenpom efficiency data, Iowa, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State all have very similar odds in the range of 7.5 to 8.5 percent.
Figure 1 below provides an update on the Big Ten strength of schedule data.
The left panel shows the overall strength of each team’s schedule, which has been consistent as the season has progressed. The right panel, however, shows the strength of each teams’ remaining schedule, which is more critical.
Overall, Michigan State still has the second easiest schedule in the conference. However, the bad news is that all of the benefits of this easy schedule are already past. As the right-hand side of Figure 1 shows, the Spartans currently have the most difficult remaining schedule in the conference. None of the Spartans’ Big Ten opponents so far are projected to finish conference play with a winning record.
As for the other Big Ten contenders, it is notable that Illinois is in a similar position as Michigan State with a very challenging remaining schedule. Purdue’s remaining schedule is now average, while Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State all have relatively soft remaining slates.
Michigan State’s Kenpom Trajectory and Remaining Schedule
Figure 2 below provides an update to the Kenpom efficiency scatter plot, the format of which has been explained previously.
Figure 2 provides some insight into what is currently “going wrong” with Michigan State’s season. The trajectory of the Spartans’ season shows a steady improvement in offensive efficiency. However, the Spartans’ defensive efficiency has been sliding since early December, and this value dropped sharply in the past two games.
Michigan State’s current position is still technically inside of the blue “championship zone” in the figure, however, no team in the past 20 years has won the national title with an overall efficiency margin less than +19.0. Currently, only 14 total teams nationally have efficiency values that would qualify them as current championship contenders. Among Big Ten teams, only Illinois is currently solidly in this zone, as Purdue’s defensive profile is currently not up to par.
The Spartans’ current efficiency profile now most closely matches that of the 2010 team that advanced to the Final Four. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if the Spartans do not reverse the current trend, they will quickly start to resemble teams that did not survive the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, including the teams in 2002, 2011 and 2017.
Finally, Figure 3 below gives an overview of Michigan State’s remaining Big Ten schedule, including projected point spreads and win probabilities.
Overall, the Spartans currently project to be favored in eight of their remaining 13 scheduled Big Ten games. The first major test of the Big Ten season starts on Friday with a pair of road games at Wisconsin and Illinois. Currently, there is a 46 percent chance that Michigan State will find a way to steal at least one of those games. If MSU can do so, the loss to Northwestern will be somewhat mitigated.
Following the game at Illinois on Tuesday, Jan. 25, the schedule gets more manageable for a set of six games where the Spartans are projected to be narrow favorites (from the home game against Michigan to the road game at Penn State). The expected win total in that six game stretch is just under four games. So, don’t be shocked if MSU were to drop one or two of those games. Running the table in that stretch has odds of only about six percent.
Then, the Spartans have a tough final stretch of four games against many of the likely conference contenders, starting with a home game against Illinois and ending with a road game at Ohio State. This is the stretch where Michigan State’s Big Ten fate will be decided. The math suggests that MSU should win 1.6 games, so just going .500 in this stretch would be a “win.”
Ultimately, this schedule actually sets up very well for the Spartans. While the loss to Northwestern is disappointing and frustrating, elite programs are not defined by whether or not they drop a few games that they should have won. That attitude is reserved for programs that worry more about recruiting rankings and overall win percentages padded by games played 100 years ago.
No, Michigan State is an elite program because Tom Izzo is a wizard at preparing his team to win games against high-level opponents in late February and March. That is what is required to hang banners, and that is why the Spartans’ trophy case has overflown in the past 30 years. The Spartans will absolutely have that chance in mid to late February, and usually this is where Coach Izzo led teams start to peak.
Part of this process, however, often involves some growing pains earlier in the season. We have all seen this movie before and over 35 percent of the time since 1999 it has ended in a Final Four. That said, there is no guarantee that the 2022 season will end on any high note. The Spartans have a lot of nice pieces this year, but also a lot of problems that need to be addressed.
At the end of the day, most Spartan teams get what they deserve. If the 2022 team addresses the current issues (turnovers, rebounding and defense), MSU has a great chance to potentially have a special season. If the Spartans do not...they won’t. It is no more simple or complicated than that. Izzo knows it and he will likely be spending this week trying to convince his team of the same.
That is all for now. Until next time, enjoy, and Go Green.