“an equatorial region of the Atlantic Ocean with calms, sudden storms, and light unpredictable winds.”
“a state or period of inactivity, stagnation, or depression.”
I have a confession to make. After Michigan State fairly easily dispatched the Indiana Hoosiers last Saturday, I thought that the mid-season funk had come to an end. I fully expected that the Spartans had escaped from the early February Bermuda Triangle and were ready to make another run at the Big Ten title, difficulty of the remaining schedule be damned.
When the Spartans had the lead up to 14 points at Penn State, I thought that it was going to be smooth sailing for the rest of the evening. But then, all of a sudden, the wind seemed to come out of the sails of Michigan State’s offense. It grew inactive and stagnant, and by the time the final buzzer sounded, fans of the Spartans were depressed. Now, a once promising season seems lost at sea.
As we will see below, the odds of Tom Izzo claiming his record-tying 11th Big Ten title are fading over the distant horizon. There are still other trophies to chase, but some of the doors of opportunity for the 2021-2022 season are closing. Based on where the Spartans were just a few weeks ago, this is disappointing.
But right now, the main goal is to escape from the doldrums. While this Spartan team is flawed and unpredictable, I believe that it has enough quality pieces to win quite a few more games in 2022. The winds of change in Big Ten country are fickle. Hopefully they will start to blow Michigan State’s way again soon.
Enhanced Big Ten Standings and Updated Odds
Table 1 gives the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of Feb. 18. Note that all the changes in value are relative to last week’s full update, just before the win over Indiana.
With a record of 9-5, Michigan State is currently sitting in sixth place in the conference, a half-game behind suddenly hot Rutgers, after the Scarlet Knights recently took out Illinois on Wednesday night. As a result of this upset, Purdue has now surged ahead and into first place in the conference with a 12-4 record with just four games left to play. Illinois and Wisconsin are a half-game back at 11-4, while Ohio State sits in fourth place at 9-4.
The updated Big Ten win distribution matrix is shown below in Table 2.
Michigan State’s expected conference win total has drifted slightly lower to 11.8, which still implies that a final record of 12-8 is most likely. This would also imply that the Spartans are most likely to split the final six conference games to finish the regular season at 21-10 overall.
The Spartans are currently projected to earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If Michigan State splits the final six games and goes 1-1 in the Big Ten Tournament, I would project a final seed of No. 7 in the Big Dance. In the event that MSU gets to 13-7 or 14-6, that seed would clearly improve. However, if MSU really limps down the stretch, it is in danger of falling to a No. 8 or No. 9 seed or worse, depending on the mood of the selection committee.
Table 3 below gives the updated odds to at least share the Big Ten regular season title as of Feb. 11.
With Rutgers continuing to decimate the teams at the top of the conference, Purdue and Ohio State were able to benefit. The Boilermakers have a solid lead in Big Ten regular season championship odds at 64 percent, with Wisconsin and Illinois both checking in now with percentage odds in the lower 30s.
Ohio State’s odds have ticked up significantly to 25 percent. Michigan State’s odds are now down to 1.6 percent.
That said, if you happen to be an eternal optimist, here is some grist for your mill. In 2020, Michigan State had a record of 9-6 on Feb. 19 and had just lost four of its last five games. Four of the final five games were against ranked teams and half of those games were on the road. The Spartans rallied to win all five games, and thanks to a few upsets elsewhere in the conference, Michigan State got to hang a banner for a Big Ten championship.
Michigan State is currently only one game out of first place and will soon play three of the four teams ahead of the Spartans in the standings. MSU still controls its own destiny with the exception of Wisconsin. But the math above gives the Badgers only an eight percent chance to run the table. If the Spartans can rally like Izzo’s team did in 2020 (and that is an enormous “if”), a Big Ten title is still very likely in play.
Big Ten Tournament and Strengths of Schedule
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because there are still 35 Big Ten games left on the full schedule. Fortunately, we can use projected point spreads and simulations to get a sneak peek on how the Big Ten Tournament seeding might play out. Table 4 below summarizes the odds for each team to earn each seed.
Rutgers is the clear rising stars this week, as the Scarlet Knights’ projected seeds jumped four spots to No. 5 using both calculation methods. Michigan State has slipped to the No. 6 spot in the table and is once again in danger of dropping below the Michigan Wolverines to the No. 7 seed in the scenario where the currently projected favored teams all win out.
The odds for the Spartans to climb back into the top-four and earn the Big Ten Tournament double-bye are down to 17 percent, which is below Rutgers’ odds of 24 percent. Michigan State’s odds of winning the Big Ten Tournament are currently at 6.5 percent, as shown below in Table 5.
Figure 1 below provides an update on the Big Ten strength of schedule data.
Similar to the past few updates, Michigan State continues to have the most challenging remaining schedule in the conference, while Wisconsin and Ohio State have two of the easier remaining schedules. Purdue and Illinois rank in the middle.
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.
Up until the blowout loss at Rutgers, the efficiency numbers for the Spartans were hovering right around the area of Figure 2 that is similar to Michigan State’s 2010 Final Four team. Over the last two weeks, the efficiency has drifted down to the area of the graph that is populated by past Spartan teams that did not make it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The key point here is that if the Spartans do not start playing better right now, especially on defense, Michigan State fans need to temper expectations on the potential ceiling of this team (if they haven’t already). Clearly, the team that failed to finish off the Nittany Lions in State College this week is not going anywhere meaningful in March.
Finally, Figure 3 below gives an overview of MSU’s remaining Big Ten games, including projected point spreads and win probabilities for the final eight contests on the schedule.
The Spartans have now reached the end-of-season gauntlet that we have seen coming since early December. Michigan State only projects to be favored in two of the final six games, but the overall probabilities suggest that getting three wins in the final six games is most likely.
One way to think about this is that MSU is expected to win one of the two toss-up home games against Illinois or Purdue, one of three remaining road games, and the home finale against Maryland. That is the most likely set of scenarios.
I will also comment that the one game on the schedule that seems the most difficult right now is the road game at Ohio State on March 3. The raw probabilities shown in Figure 3 support this, as does the schedule. The game in Columbus will be the Spartans’ third game in six days, including two likely very physical games against Purdue and at Michigan. It would certainly have been much better if Michigan State already had a big win at Michigan on the resume back in early January.
The way that Michigan State performs over the next five games will ultimately decide the fate of the 2021-2022 team. If the Spartans can consistently harness the level of focus and execution that the team displayed at Wisconsin and at home against Indiana and Michigan, I believe that Michigan State can overachieve and win four or even five of these remaining games.
History tells us that this is certainly possible, if not probable with Coach Izzo on the bench. But each team and each year is different and nothing in life is guaranteed. Either way, the opportunity is there for this team to make their mark. The time to make a move is now. Go Green.