Why Michigan State is the Big Ten’s best hope for a national title

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Unranked Michigan State has lost four of its past five games, is in the middle of a four-way tie for third place in the muddled Big Ten standings and is currently a No. 6 seed in Bracketology.

And yet: The Spartans are still the Big Ten’s best chance at a national championship. In fact, Michigan State’s shot at the title — 5% — is more than double Maryland’s or any other Big Ten team’s chance, per ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). And yes, BPI is fully aware that the Terrapins picked up a victory over the Spartans in East Lansing just a few days ago.

My first thought: This has to be the preseason priors, right? After all, BPI (among others) did rank the Spartans first in the preseason thanks to the presence of Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman on the roster and coach Tom Izzo’s track record.

But that’s not really it. While it’s true that BPI always includes preseason ratings at least as a small factor even at the end of the season — this is not arbitrary; it improves the model’s accuracy — the Spartans are not buoyed solely by that.

Michigan State actually ranks sixth in adjusted net efficiency, which means that although it hasn’t been completely reflected in their record, the Spartans are playing like a top-10 team once we account for the quality of opponents. For a team in the Big Ten, that final part is key, because BPI considers the conference best in the nation in the moment. Those muddled standings? That’s the result of many quality teams, and so the records in the conference are somewhat obscured.

Michigan State has played the eighth-hardest schedule in the country, per BPI. But what about Maryland? The Terps actually have a worse unadjusted efficiency than Michigan State on the season and have played an easier schedule, most notably because they played the 101st-most difficult nonconference schedule compared to Michigan State’s 47th.

When it comes to predicting future results, efficiencies — rather than record — are more important to the process, which is why BPI considers the Spartans the fifth-best team in the nation going forward. And why it believes Michigan State’s title hopes exceed Maryland’s.

The Spartans are not perfect. Winston has not quite lived up to the hype, and offensively Michigan State could use a third scoring option after him and Tillman. But it hasn’t cost that much: The Spartans rank 15th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and both Tillman and Winston are in the top 25 of our opponent-adjusted win shares metric thanks to not just their scoring but their contributions via rebounding (Tillman) and assists (Winston).

Though their schedule remains tough, BPI’s belief in the quality of the team leads it to believe the Spartans will improve their seeding come Selection Sunday, with an average projected seed of 3.8 and a 68% chance that Michigan State lands a top-four seed. And from that position our model projects chances of 60%, 20% and 5%, respectively, of reaching the Sweet 16, Final Four and winning the national championship — best of all Big Ten teams in every category.

Which other Big Ten teams are poised for a strong March?

Maryland receives the second-most bullish projection from BPI among Big Ten teams. But after that might be a small surprise: Instead of No. 9-ranked Penn State, BPI prefers Ohio State. The Buckeyes have just under a coin flip’s chance to reach the Sweet 16 and a 2% chance to win the national championship — basically the same as Maryland.

The Buckeyes could be an underrated team come March for the same reasons as Michigan State: They’re stronger on defense, and the quality of the Big Ten might obscure how well the Kaleb Wesson-led Buckeyes have played. Once adjusted for opponent, the Buckeyes have been the 10th-most efficient team in the country.

Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa all have a 30-35% chance to reach the Sweet 16, all ahead of the enigmatic Purdue team that ranks higher than all three in BPI. Though the model thinks Purdue’s bizarre season — which includes results such as a 29-point win over Michigan State and a 14-point loss to Nebraska — is evidence of a high-quality team, the fact that the Boilermakers are 14-13 overall means BPI projects Purdue to end up around a No. 7 seed. And that means an awfully tough second-round contest and, in turn, only a 1-in-4 shot at the Sweet 16.

One team BPI does not think is likely to be a major factor in March is Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights, who currently sit at a No. 8 seed in Bracketology, played the easiest schedule in the Big Ten thanks to their 318th-most difficult nonconference schedule. And down the stretch, Rutgers has the hardest remaining schedule of any team in the country, with all of its remaining opponents — Wisconsin, Penn State, Maryland and Purdue — among BPI’s top 26 teams. While Rutgers has undoubtedly exceeded expectations to date, it will likely be other Big Ten teams making noise in the NCAA tournament.

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