In all fairness, I did warn everyone that early February can be bumpy in East Lansing.
On Tuesday night at Maryland, the Michigan State Spartans men’s basketball team barely survived a surprisingly stiff road test from the Terrapins. Michigan State blew a 15-point second half lead, but was bailed out by Malik Hall in the final seconds.
The good news is that MSU has a lot of players who have the potential to act as the hero on any given night. Just this season, Marcus Bingham Jr. (versus Loyola Chicago) and Joey Hauser (against Minnesota) join Hall as Spartans who have hit game-winning shots in the final seconds of games. Gabe Brown also hit a three-pointer with under a minute to play to essentially clinch a win over Northwestern in Evanston.
The bad news is that the Spartans have needed a hero to close out several teams who will likely not be playing in the NCAA Tournament in March. Michigan State has a lot of weapons, but it has seldom been firing at the same time.
As we come to the midpoint of the Big Ten season, now is the time for head coach Tom Izzo to tighten the final screws. January is often a month of exploration and experimentation in East Lansing. February is a month for fine tuning while chasing trophies and banners. With another (albeit ugly) win on the Spartans’ ledger, how much closer are those banners? Let’s check the numbers.
Enhanced Big Ten Standings and Updated Odds
Table 1 gives the updated enhanced Big Ten standings as of Feb. 3. Note that all the changes in value are relative to last week’s full update, which was prior to the win over Michigan.
Michigan State is currently sitting half of a game out of first place behind Illinois and half of a game in front of Purdue and Wisconsin. Ohio State is tied with the Boilermakers and Badgers in the loss column with three each. I will also note that the top five teams in the league are all “plus-three,” which means that they have three more road victories than home losses.
The updated Big Ten win distribution matrix is shown below in Table 2.
Now that the Big Ten has rescheduled most of the previously postponed games, I am making the assumption that all teams will somehow play all 20 originally scheduled games. That said, the weather-related postponement of the Ohio State/Iowa game on Thursday, coupled with the already postponed Ohio State at Nebraska game, could make this challenging. I cannot be certain that the Buckeyes will get all of those games in, but I will make that assumption for now.
Purdue still boasts the best Kenpom efficiency in the conference, and as a result, the Boilermakers have the highest expected conference win total at 15.0. Illinois is less than one game behind at 14.4 and Michigan State is third at 13.9. Wisconsin has dropped to fourth place at 13.5 and Ohio State is in fifth at 13.4.
The current numbers suggest that Michigan State has a 36 percent chance to finish with a record of 15-5 or better. The odds of a record of 16-4 or better now sit as 15 percent.
Table 3 below gives the updated odds to at least share the Big Ten regular season title as of Feb. 4.
Despite still being a game out of first place, Purdue holds a large lead in odds with a 55 percent chance to at least share the regular season title. By virtue of beating Wisconsin on Wednesday night, Illinois’ odds are up to 33 percent (and the Badgers’ odds are down to 14 percent, which is just a fraction of a percent below Ohio State’s odds).
The Spartans’ regular season Big Ten odds are now up to 26 percent, which are as high as they have been since Michigan State’s win over Nebraska on Jan. 5.
Big Ten Tournament and Strengths of Schedule
If the season ended today, that would be weird, because there are still 67 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.
The Spartans are still projecting as either the No. 3 seed (based on total odds) or No. 4 seed (based on the scenario where the projected favorite wins all the remaining Big Ten games) in the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan State currently has a 73 percent chance of earning a coveted double-bye.
Table 5 below gives the odds for each Big Ten team to advance in the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan State has a 12 percent chance of winning the Big Ten Tournament, based on the Kenpom efficiency margin of each Big Ten team.
Figure 1 below provides an update on the Big Ten strength of schedule data.
The Spartans continue to have the second-easiest conference schedule overall, but their remaining schedule is now the sixth-most difficult. It is almost a full game/win harder than Wisconsin’s remaining schedule and over a game-and-a-half harder than Ohio State’s remaining schedule. That said, it is also about a half-game easier than Illinois’ remaining schedule.
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.
Michigan State continues to reside in the lower left portion of a blue-shaded “championship zone.” In other words, Michigan State’s current combination of offensive and defensive efficiency is in the ballpark of a few past dark horse NCAA champions. The Spartans are one of only 13 current teams with that resume. Illinois is the only other Big Ten team with a comparable resume, as Purdue’s defensive efficiency is not currently good enough to make the cut.
The profile of the 2021-2022 Michigan State team currently most resembles MSUs 2010 Final Four team. As the green oval shows, the Spartans seem likely to remain in this championship zone for the rest of the season, but a substantial improvement in average efficiency at this point in the season (to resemble the 2009 or 2020 team, for example) is unlikely.
Finally, Figure 3 below gives an overview of MSU’s remaining Big Ten schedule, including projected point spreads and win probabilities.
Interestingly, the next three games at Rutgers and then at home versus Wisconsin and Indiana all project to have almost identical spreads and victory probabilities. The math would suggest that the Spartans are expected to win two of those three contests. If MSU can sweep all three of these contests, the Spartans’ expected win total should top 15.0 games, which would then push the Big Ten title odds up close to 50 percent.
The two subsequent games at Penn State and at home versus Illinois project to be slightly tougher. The math suggests that there is only a 40 percent chance that Michigan State will win both games. Overall, if the Spartans can win at least four of the next five games, their Big Ten title odds should continue to rise. If MSU drops two of the next five, those odds will drop.
Following the Illinois game, the next four games all look to be close to a pick’em, especially the home game versus Purdue and the now rescheduled road game at Michigan. A split over those four games would be a narrow victory overall, based on current expectations. Winning three of those games would be a very good sign, especially if one of those wins comes over Purdue.
There are a lot of ways to parse the data, but the bottom line is that 16-4 still projects to be the record that most likely will be needed to win the Big Ten. Table 3 suggests that there is a two-thirds chance that this statement is true. As such, the Spartans can likely only afford two more Big Ten losses. If MSU drops a third game on the backend of the schedule, a Big Ten title is still possible, but less likely.
But, not all wins are equal. If Michigan State can find a way to beat most or all of the main contenders (Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Ohio State), a record of 15-5 might be good enough to hang a banner, as it would force those teams to essentially run the table otherwise to remain in contention. That said, if MSU wins most of those games, it seems reasonable that the Spartans will finish with at least 16 conference wins anyway.
Regardless, it is early February and Michigan State is solidly in Big Ten regular season title contention. The next few games will be tough, but they are all very winnable. If Coach Izzo can continue to fine tune this roster and get his weapons all pointed in the same direction at the same time, this team could be very dangerous.
That is all for today. Until next time, enjoy, and Go State, beat Rutgers!