I have used a few metaphors to try to describe this year’s Michigan State basketball season, and most of them have been nautical in nature. First, I explained the existence of the Bermuda Triangle. Then, I thought that the Spartans might have found calmer waters. Most recently, I speculated that the Green and White were stuck in the doldrums.
As the losses continue to accumulate, punctuated most recently with the blow-out loss at Iowa, I no longer feel that the Spartans are lost at sea. No, I fear that the situation is more dire than that. I fear instead that they are lost in space.
The current streak of losing five of the last six feels dark, suffocating, and no one knows which way is up anymore. Worse yet, there is an event horizon visible in the distance. If the Spartans get too close, they will cross the point of no return and a cherished 23-year NCAA Tournament streak will be lost forever. It is unbelievable that we even need to talk about that considering where the Spartans were just a month ago, but here we are.
So, how bad are things, really? How much do Michigan State fans need to worry about the unthinkable? Let’s take a quick spin through the numbers.
Enhanced Big Ten Standings and Updated Odds
Table 1 gives the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of Feb. 26. Note that all the changes in value are relative to last week’s full update, just before the loss to Illinois.
With just four games remaining in the Big Ten season, Michigan State has drifted to the middle of the pack and is now in a tie with the Wolverines for seventh place, a half-game behind Iowa and Rutgers.
The updated Big Ten win distribution matrix is shown below in Table 2.
With Illinois’ loss to Ohio State this week, Purdue and Wisconsin have edged ahead in expected wins and now appear to be neck-and-neck in the final stretch with Ohio State and Illinois about a game back.
Iowa has made a move up to fifth place, a fraction of a win ahead of Rutgers, with Michigan and Michigan State about a half game back of the Scarlet Knights. Indiana is more than a game behind the Michiganders.
While it likely feels to Michigan State fans that they will never win a game again, there is still a 60 percent chance that the Spartans finish at 11-9 or better and a 21 percent chance that they win at least three of their final four games.
Table 3 below gives the updated odds to at least share the Big Ten regular season title as of Feb. 26.
Consistent with Table 2, the race looks like it will come down to Purdue and Wisconsin who have a 65 and 57 percent chance to win the regular season title. Incidentally, those two teams will play each other in Madison on Tuesday, March 1. The winner of that game will likely clinch at least a share of the championship.
Note also that the math is still split on whether Purdue or Wisconsin will win out and claim the title at 16-4. In general, there is a 62 percent chance that the eventual winner does not have to share the title, a 24 percent chance that two teams will share the title and a 14 percent chance that it is a three-team or more tie.
Big Ten Tournament and Strengths of Schedule
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because there are still 22 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.
As the end of the season approaches, the seeding for the Big Ten Tournament is starting to take shape.
The top four seeds are fixed with about 90 percent certainty. In addition, seeds No. 9 to No. 14 are starting to solidify. But seeds No. 5 to No. 8 are very much up for grabs.
With the Spartans’ continuing troubles, the Green and White are currently projected to earn the No. 8 seed with the No. 7 seed also very possible. That said, any seed from No. 3 down to No. 10 is still in play.
In addition, I have extracted additional information from the simulation. The shaded column in the center of Table 4 now shows the most likely opponents for the Spartans to face in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. Indiana (43 percent) and Penn State (32 percent) are the current most likely opponents.
Table 5 below gives the odds for each Big Ten team to advance in the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan State’s odds to win the tournament title are currently at 3.6 percent, which is slightly better than the odds for Michigan State to win out in the regular season.
Figure 1 below provides an update on the Big Ten strength of schedule data.
The slightly good news is that Michigan State’s remaining schedule is now only the third hardest remaining schedule, with Iowa’s schedule now grading out as slightly more challenging. The Hawkeyes will finish up the regular season at Michigan and at Illinois.
Michigan State’s Kenpom Trajectory and Remaining Schedule
Figure 2 below provides an update to the Kenpom efficiency scatter plot.
The Spartans continue to drift farther away from the efficiency profile of past Spartan teams who have enjoyed a reasonably successful postseason. The stats of the current Michigan State team very closely resemble the stats of the 2002 team that lost in the first round. If the Spartans don’t start playing drastically better, a similar (or worse) fate is likely awaiting.
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.
As expected, the Spartans are still projected to be the underdog in their next three contests, including today’s game with Purdue. While the Kenpom data only favors Purdue by around two points, the line in Vegas has opened with the Boilermakers as a four-point favorite.
If we look at the cold, hard numbers, they suggest the most likely scenario for the Spartans would be for Michigan State to spring exactly one upset in the next three games and then beat Maryland in the finale to finish the regular season at 11-9 in the Big Ten and 20-11 overall.
The Spartans would then enter the Big Ten Tournament as (most likely) the No. 7 seed where they would face a team such as Penn State. MSU would be favored to win this game and then would be an underdog in the next game (against a team such as No. 2 seed Wisconsin). The most likely outcome is for MSU to win a game and lose a game in Indianapolis and enter the NCAA Tournament with a 21-12 record.
Based on this hypothetical resume, I would guess that Michigan State’s NET would remain in the mid-30s and it would likely earn a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, although I would not rule out a No. 8 or No. 9 seed.
If the Spartans can finish stronger than that, they could still play their way back up to a No. 6 or No. 5 seed. But what happens if Michigan State continues to underachieve? Are they in danger of missing the Tournament?
My best guess is that Michigan State needs to win just one more game to feel safe on Selection Sunday. So, what are the odds, then, that the Spartans lose out?
The question is actually pretty easy to answer. Table 2 shows that the odds that Michigan State finishes at 9-11 at six percent. This would obviously be bad, but MSU could still pick up a win in the Big Ten Tournament which I believe would be enough to keep the streak alive. The odds of losing out and then losing in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament are a bit less than three percent.
That said, the surest way to avoid sweating on Selection Sunday would be to pick up an impressive win over Purdue at Breslin Center on Saturday. That would certainly go a long way toward securing a bid and bringing the team back down to earth.
That is all for today. Until next time, enjoy and Go State, beat the Boilers!