The last time we checked our telescopes, the Michigan State University basketball team was entering 2021 with a nice 11-2 record overall, including a perfect 2-0 mark in Big Ten play. While things were certainly going better than expected in East Lansing, the Spartans were generally still projected to finish on the periphery of the upper echelon of the conference.
A lot has changed in the last week. MSU won two tough games at Northwestern and at home versus a suddenly scrappy Nebraska squad in the Breslin Center. In addition, teams like Purdue and Ohio State both absorbed losses. Don’t look now, but the Spartans have shot up to the top of the Big Ten standings like a comet from somewhere in the Oort Cloud.
But, is the team wearing Green and White now on a collision course for yet another Big Ten title, or will those dreams break up somewhere in the upper atmosphere? In cases like these, I think that it is best to ask, “What would Leonardo Dicaprio and Jennifer Lawrence do?” Most likely, they would ask a Michigan State graduate to do some #math. So, let’s check the numbers.
Enhanced Big Ten Standings and Updated Odds
Table 1 gives the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of Jan. 7.
With 18 percent of the Big Ten season now complete, the Spartans are currently tied with Illinois for first place in the conference with perfect 4-0 records. Furthermore, only three other teams have just one loss: Ohio State, Wisconsin and Rutgers.
Table 2 below shows the updated Big Ten win distribution matrix, based on a series of Monte Carlo simulations using Kenpom efficiency data as the key input.
Michigan State has risen up to second place in expected wins with a value of just over 13.5 conference wins, up half of a win since the last update. Basically, the numbers say that MSU has a 50-50 chance to win 14 games or more. The odds to go 15-5 or better are now at 33 percent and the odds of a 16-4 record or better are at 18 percent.
Illinois made an even bigger move in these standings this week. The Illini now have a full-game lead in expected wins over the Spartans and the rest of the conference. Other big movers this week include Wisconsin (+2.17), Penn State (+1.95) and Rutgers (+1.23). On the flip side, Northwestern (-1.81), Purdue (-1.43), and Michigan (-1.32) are in retrograde.
Table 3 below gives the updated odds to at least share the Big Ten regular season title.
As expected, the Illini also now have the best odds to win the Big Ten Championship, currently at 47 percent, up 23 percent in the last week. The Spartans currently check in with the second-best odds at just below 27 percent, which is a 10 percentage-point improvement since Jan. 1.
A final conference record of 16-4 is still the most likely performance needed to secure a share of the regular season title. More generally, there is roughly an 80 percent chance that the champion(s) will end up with between 15 and 17 conference wins.
As for our colleagues at the school down the road, it appears that the Michigan Wolverines were a bit over-confident with their calculations in the preseason. A lot was published about Michigan’s recruiting class and other new additions, but it looks now like those reports would not have survived true peer review. The Wolverines are now afraid to look up at the standings.
But, the biggest disaster might be yet to come. With Michigan’s expected win total now under 10 wins, a losing conference record is now more likely than not. If this trend holds, last year’s regional finalists will not be making a return trip to the Big Dance. Don’t worry, though, Wolverine fans, it isn’t the end of the world.
Big Ten Tournament and Strengths of Schedule
world season ended today, that would be weird, because there are still 115 Big Ten games left on the schedule. Fortunately, though, 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.
The four teams projected to receive double byes have not changed (Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State), but they all now project as different seeds than they did just a week ago. Illinois now projects as the No. 1 seed based both on simulation and on the scenario where the favorites win all remaining Big Ten games.
Michigan State now has the second-best expected seed. That said, if the favored teams all win, MSU will fall slightly to the No. 4 seed. The odds that MSU secures a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament are currently 68 percent.
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. As such, Purdue still has the best odds to win the Big Ten Tournament at 27 percent. Illinois is in second place at 21 percent, while the Spartans’ odds are at about 13 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 is not going to change much as the season progresses. The right panel, however, shows the strength of each team’s remaining schedule, which is much more important.
As Figure 1 shows, Michigan continues to have the most difficult remaining schedule, which is a big part of why the Wolverines seem likely to be smashed by a planet killer. That said, Michigan State, Illinois and Purdue all have the three next most difficult schedules. In contrast, the three schools with the easiest remaining schedules (Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State) are all still in the mix to challenge for the conference crown.
In other words, the Big Ten race is just getting started.
Michigan State’s Kenpom Trajectory and Remaining Schedule
Figure 2 below provides an update to the Kenpom efficiency scatter plot that I introduced in the last odds update.
The Spartans have continued to move farther into the blue “championship zone,” which suggests that Tom Izzo’s squad currently has both an offensive and defensive profile that is on par with the set of previous NCAA Champions.
As the season has progressed, Michigan State has improved its offensive efficiency, while the calculated defensive efficiency seems to be slipping. That said, the Spartans’ current position is almost identical to the 2007 team (that lost to No. 1 seed North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament) and the 2010 Final Four team.
The green oval in Figure 2 suggests that it would be reasonable for Michigan State to continue to improve to a profile that resembles the 1998 Sweet 16 team, the 2009 team that reached the championship game and the 2020 team that looked like a contender prior to the cancelation of March Madness due to COVID-19.
Finally, Figure 3 below gives an overview of MSU’s remaining Big Ten schedule, including projected point spreads and win probabilities.
If these projected point spreads are correct, Michigan State will be an underdog in only five of its remaining games, including Saturday’s contest in Ann Arbor. The Spartans also project to be the underdog at Wisconsin, at Illinois, at Iowa and at Ohio State. The home game at Purdue now projects as a toss-up. I should note that Wisconsin’s strong performance over the last week has now shifted that game into the underdog category for the Green and White.
As for that game in Ann Arbor, the Spartans are likely to face a very desperate Michigan squad that may or may not be at full strength. While Michigan State clearly seems to be the superior team so far this year, road games against rivals are always extremely dangerous, especially when their backs are against the wall.
That said, this feels like a game that Michigan State can and should win, possibly by double-digits. If MSU does win, the schedule sets up nicely for a possible 7-0 conference record heading into a bye week that leads up to two tough road tests at Wisconsin and then at Illinois. By then, the Spartans would likely be alone atop the standings and the clear favorite to win the conference.
But, that is a discussion for next week. For now, the mission is clear: Go State, beat the Wolverines!
If things go as I expect, Saturday will be a good day for Michigan State fans. As for the scoreboard in the Crisler Center, my advice to Wolverines fans is simple: don’t look up.