The last week or so of Michigan State basketball has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride. A week ago, the Spartans were coming off a demoralizing loss to the shorthanded Northwestern Wildcats at home to snap a nine-game winning streak.
Then, the Spartans went to Madison last Friday and dominated a top-10-ranked Wisconsin team in the Badgers’ own building. But, a few days later, the Spartans were ice cold from the field and a little sloppy once more in a narrow defeat in Champaign, Illinois to the Illini.
It has been the story of one step forward and one step back for the Spartans. Is the 2022 version of Michigan State a true Big Ten title contender or not? While it is not unprecedented for a Tom Izzo coached team to see some slippage in the middle of the Big Ten season, the current lack of consistency is frustrating.
Where does the last week of action leave the Big Ten race? Once again, let’s dig into the numbers.
Enhanced Big Ten Standings and Updated Odds
Table 1 gives the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of Jan. 28.
The Spartans spent a few days alone at the top of the standings following the win over Wisconsin. However, the results of the past week have left Michigan State in a tie for second place with Ohio State. The Spartans and Buckeyes are now a half-game behind Illinois and Wisconsin in the standings.
Note from Table 1 that the Badgers currently lead the conference in luck at +2.15 games, while Purdue has almost a full game (-0.95) of “negative luck.”
The updated Big Ten win distribution matrix is shown below in Table 2.
Despite splitting the last two games, Michigan State’s expected win total has increased by almost a full game to 12.68. The Spartans are now most likely to finish at 13-6 overall with a 32 percent chance to get to 14-5 or better and a 13 percent chance to reach a record of 15-4 or better.
Table 3 below gives the updated odds to at least share the Big Ten regular season title as of Jan. 28.
A lot has changed since the previous update. Purdue is once again projected to be the favorite to win the Big Ten regular season with odds of 46 percent. The Boilermakers picked up two wins this week, including a big road win over Iowa on Thursday. Purdue has also rescheduled the road game at Michigan, which will now be played on Feb. 10, and adding the game has bolstered the Boilermakers’ title odds by about five percentage points.
This is due to the fact that the Boilers can now tie in the final standings with either Illinois and/or Wisconsin. If the 20th game on Purdue’s schedule was not played, then the Boilermakers were in real danger of finishing a half-game out of first place.
As for the Spartans, Michigan State’s current Big Ten title odds stand at 14 percent. While this is roughly double the odds following the loss to Northwestern, MSU’s odds were around 25 percent after the win at Wisconsin and would have been close to 40 percent if the Spartans had managed to down Illinois.
The rescheduling of the Purdue/Michigan game also has a slight negative impact on Michigan State’s championship odds. If that game was not played, Michigan State and Purdue could have finished tied in the standings. Now, the Spartans will need to beat Purdue by a half-game in order to hang a regular season banner this year.
Big Ten Tournament and Strengths of Schedule
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because there are still 76 Big Ten games left on the schedule. Fortunately, we can use projected point spreads and simulations to get a sneak peak on how the Big Ten Tournament might play out. Table 4 below summarizes the odds for each team to earn each seed.
Michigan State is now projected to be the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten Tournament or even the No. 3 seed in the single scenario where the projected favorite wins all 76 of the remaining conference games. The Spartans’ odds of claiming the double-bye in the tournament currently stand at 63 percent.
Right now, the top-five teams in the conference (Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State and Ohio State) are jockeying for only four double-bye spots in the conference tournament. One of those five teams is going to lose out when the music stops at the end of the regular season.
Table 5 below gives the odds for each Big Ten team to advance in the Big Ten tournament.
The advanced metrics such as Kenpom efficiencies (which is the key input to my simulations) still suggest that Purdue is the best team in the Big Ten by a noticeable margin. As a result, the Boilermakers have the best Big Ten Tournament odds at 38 percent. Illinois (15 percent) and Michigan State (12 percent) round out the top-three teams.
Figure 1 below provides an update on the Big Ten strength of schedule data.
With two tough road games now in the rearview mirror, Michigan State’s remaining schedule (right panel) is now in the middle of the pack in the conference (seventh-most difficult) and similar in difficulty to Purdue’s and Ohio State’s remaining schedules.
Wisconsin’s remaining schedule is the easiest of the current five contenders, while Illinois has one of the toughest remaining slates. Note that the Michigan Wolverines still own the hardest remaining schedules, especially after rescheduling the game against Purdue.
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.
The figure visualizes something that many Michigan State fans are also feeling. The Spartans have essentially been going in circles in the region of the graph where they are just barely still a potential national title contender. The 2022 team’s current offensive and defensive efficiencies are very similar to both the 2007 team (which lost a tough second round game to No. 1 seed North Carolina) and the 2010 Final Four team.
The best case scenario for the Spartans would be to improve enough on offense and defense so that the team starts to resemble the 2020 team or the 2009 teams that made the national final game. However, as the green oval indicates, time is running out for Michigan State to realistically expect that much improvement by Selection Sunday.
That all said, Michigan State is currently one of only 14 total teams with the current offensive and defensive efficiencies of past national champions. Illinois is the only other Big Ten team in that group, as are Baylor, UCONN and Kansas — all of whom MSU has already faced this year.
Finally, Figure 3 below gives an overview of Michigan State’s remaining Big Ten schedule, including projected point spreads and win probabilities.
The good news for MSU is that the Spartans are projected to be favored in each of the team’s next seven games. That said, the projected point spreads are all less than six points, which suggests two to three upsets in that stretch is certainly possible, if not likely.
The final stretch run of the season continues to look challenging, but there is no reason to expect that Michigan State cannot steal a few wins in the stretch where the Spartans travel to Iowa, host Purdue and travel to Ohio State.
Based on the data in Table 2 and 3 above, Michigan State likely needs to get to a record of at least 15-4 to have a reasonable chance to win the conference title. The Spartans have about a 66 percent chance to hang a banner with this record.
IF Michigan State can win its next six games, then MSU could likely drop two of the next four games against Illinois, Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State, and still have a good shot. However, Coach Izzo is the master of getting his team to peak in late February and March.
Even if the Spartans drop a game at Rutgers or at Penn State (for example), MSU will likely still control its own destiny down the stretch with opportunities to dole out losses to almost all of the other conference contenders. In other words, try not to freak out if Michigan State drops another game (or even two) that it “should win” in the next few weeks. I think that this schedule sets up well for success in late February.
But, a key part of winning the next six games is to win the next one on the schedule, which just so happens to be a home game with the archrival Michigan Wolverines on Saturday. To this end, I will leave you simply with Go State, beat the Skunk Bears!