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Bad Betting Advice: Big Ten Tournament Edition

The postseason is officially here. Let’s take a quick look back at the regular season, check the odds for Indianapolis and peek ahead to the Big Dance.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 06 Maryland at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After a total of 140 conference games stretching over three months, the 2021-2022 Big Ten men’s basketball regular season is now officially complete. Congratulations to Wisconsin and Illinois for surviving this gauntlet to emerge as the 2022 Big Ten basketball regular season co-champions.

For the Michigan State Spartans, the 11-9 regular season conference record and seventh-place finish certainly feels like a disappointment, especially considering that the Spartans had sole control of first place seven games into conference play. Michigan State beat Wisconsin on the road on Jan. 21, but only posted a 5-8 record following that big win.

With the regular season in the books, the postseason beckons. Before we fully move on, let’s take a quick look back on the numbers from the regular season. Then, let’s take a look at the odds for the Big Ten Tournament. Finally, let’s try to get a sneak peek at where the Spartans will end up in the NCAA Tournament bracket.

Regular Season Overview

Table 1 below shows the final enhanced Big Ten standings for the 2021-22 season.

Table 1: Enhanced final Big Ten standings.

I have added a column to the far right of the table that summarizes the final strength of schedule impact for each team. The numbers in this column are derived from the number of expected wins for an average Big Ten team if they would have played the team in question’s schedule. In this case, I am comparing that number for each team to the overall average value for the conference as a whole.

Essentially, this calculation shows the relative worth of each team’s full conference schedule in terms of actual wins and losses. For example, Ohio State’s schedule (the conference’s easiest) was worth a little over half of a win (+0.62) over the full 20 games, relative to the conference average. Nebraska’s schedule cost the Cornhuskers roughly half of win (-0.53) relative to the average.

What is notable here is that the impact of “luck” (also known as “grit,” which is basically a measure of a team’s ability to win or lose close games) is much higher than the impact of schedule. Wisconsin, for example, won three-and-a-half games more than expected due simply to “luck,” but less than a quarter of a game due to the Badgers’ schedule.

As for Michigan State, the final analysis shows that the Spartans were slightly above average in both luck (+0.35) and schedule (+0.20), but the cumulative impact was just over half of a win.

Big Ten Tournament Odds

On Sunday evening, the Big Ten Conference officially released the bracket for the Big Ten Tournament.

No. 7 seed Michigan State will take the floor on Thursday night at 6:30 p.m. against No. 10 Maryland in the second round of the conference tournament. If the Spartans win, they will face No. 2 Wisconsin in the quarterfinals on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. Both games will be televised on the Big Ten Network.

Based on this bracket, it is straightforward to calculate the odds for each team to advance through each round by using Kenpom efficiency data to project point spreads and win probabilities for each potential match-up. Table 2 below gives the results of this series of calculations.

Table 2: Odds for each Big Ten team to advance past each round of the Big Ten Tournament

In addition to the usual probabilities, I have converted the odds for each team to win the tournament (in the “Final” column) to the equivalent money line value. I have also added the current Las Vegas money line odds (courtesy of Draft Kings as of March 8) for comparison. Finally, I made the “return-on-investment” calculation for a $100 bet on each team where I assume that my calculated odds are correct.

There are several observations that we can make from this table. First, the odds calculated using Kenpom data correlate very well with the Vegas odds, but these projections do not correlate well to the actual tournament seeds. No. 3 seed Purdue has the best overall odds (+160). No. 5 seed Iowa has the same odds as No. 1 seed Illinois (+370), and No. 2 seed Wisconsin has only the fourth best odds at +800.

No. 4 seed Rutgers has only the seventh best odds (+1500), which is slightly worse than No. 8 seed Michigan’s odds (+1200). It is notable that the three teams that graded out as the luckiest in the conference (Illinois, Wisconsin and Rutgers) all have longer than expected odds in the Big Ten Tournament relative to their actual seed.

Michigan State’s money line odds of +2500 are almost exactly what is predicted based on the odds that I have calculated (+2513). The Spartans’ chances of winning the tournament title are just below four percent.

As for the return-on-investment calculations, the money lines are almost all showing a negative ROI. It is almost like Vegas has the system set up such that it consistently makes money. That said, a pick of Iowa winning the Big Ten Tournament title looks to have the highest value. If one is a more adventurous investor, a bet on Northwestern is interesting or even a bet on the Spartans would not be crazy, based simply on the math.

Looking Ahead to the Big Dance

While contemplating a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament is nice, postseason success and failure is primarily defined by how a team does in the “Big Dance,” otherwise known as the NCAA Tournament. We are now less than a week away from Selection Sunday when the final bracket will be released.

While no one can be certain at this point which seed, location and opponent the Spartans will draw, we can get an idea based on a survey of the over 100 online brackets that are posted by various professional and amateur “bracketologists.” The website collects and publishes this data on a daily basis. As of now, Figure 1 shows a summary of which seed Michigan State is projected to earn, based on this data.

Figure 1: Summary of the projected NCAA Tournament seed for Michigan State, as collected by the bracket matrix website as of March 8.

Technically, the Spartans’ seed ranges from No. 6 to No. 11. That said, Michigan State’s seed is either No. 7, No. 8 or No. 9 in all but three of the online brackets. Right now, the Spartans are projected to play in the No. 8/No. 9 game in the first round in 75 percent of the online brackets. If this projection winds up being correct, this means that Michigan State would almost certainly face a No. 1 seed in the second round, if the Spartans can advance that far.

Michigan State’s final seed in the NCAA Tournament will also depend on how the Spartans perform this week at the Big Ten Tournament. If the Spartans lose on Thursday to Maryland, it seems likely that Michigan State will drop slightly on the seed list to a No. 9 or even a No. 10 seed. Note that slipping to a No. 10 seed would not be all bad, as it would allow the Green and White to potentially avoid a second-round game with a No. 1 seed.

If the Spartans beat Maryland and then lose to Wisconsin, my best guess is that Michigan State will hold steady as a No. 8 seed with a chance at a No. 7 seed, depending on the overall landscape and the mood of the Selection Committee. If the Spartans are able to spring an upset (or two...or three) in the Big Ten Tournament, the expected seed is likely to improve.

My general rule of thumb would be that for each win in the Big Ten Tournament past the game with Maryland will likely improve Michigan State’s seed by one seed line. In other words, I think that if Michigan State can beat Maryland and then Wisconsin, a No. 7 seed is most likely (with a chance at a No. 6 seed). If Michigan State then beats Purdue in the semifinals, a No. 6 seed seems reasonable. In the scenario where the Spartans win the whole tournament, a No. 5 seed would be in play.

The 2021-2022 season started with meager expectations. By January, Spartans fans were optimistic that another long NCAA Tournament run was imminent. Today, we are not so sure. But on the cusp of the Big Ten Tournament, I will simply refer to the words of Coach Izzo during the Senior Day celebration following Sunday night’s win over Maryland.

“You all (the fans) hung with us this year,” Izzo said. “We had a few ups and downs, but it’s March and March around here is special. We’re grinding. We’re 20-11. We are going to make a little run here. For those of you who are going down to Indy, we will see you down there...and beyond.”