or “counting your chickens before they hatch.” (Note the clever Bullwinklesque subtitle!)
In his “Burning Questions” column today, the Detroit News’ Dave Dye noted the following about MSU’s schedule over the next two months:
Q . How does the schedule set up for Michigan State in the next few weeks?
A . There’s a marquee matchup against Texas, which moved to No. 4 after winning at UCLA, coming up Dec. 22 at The Palace.
If the Spartans win that game, they should start to creep up, if not shoot up, in the polls. The other three nonconference games this month are near-locks — at home against Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne (IPFW), San Jose State and Wisconsin-Green Bay.
The first half of the Big Ten schedule starting in January also is soft. Of the first 10 conference games, only four are on the road and those are against Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State. The home games are Minnesota, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois and Northwestern.
In other words, a 10-0 start in the Big Ten is realistic before the schedule toughens up down the stretch.
The Spartans are currently 8-1. Assuming they can take care of the three remaining nonconference patsies, that would put them at 12-1 or 11-2–depending on whether they beat Texas. If they could really run the table through the first 10 games of the Big Ten season, they’d be 22-1 or 21-2. This would put them in prime position to (1) compete for the Big Ten regular season championship and (2) earn a #1 or #2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
So I thought I’d try to get an idea how likely this scenario is based on the statistical data available. The simplest tool to evaluate how a team is likely to perform against a given opponent is the Sagarin Ratings published on the USA Today website. A predicted margin of victory can be calculated by adding a home-court advantage (currently 4.15 points) to the home team’s rating and subtracting the visiting team’s rating.
For example, MSU’s current rating is 88.69. IPFW’s current rating is 67.39.
88.69 + 4.15 – 67.39 = 25.15
So MSU is predicted to beat IPFW in their next game (at the Breslin Center) by 25.15 points.
Here are the current margins of victory predicted by the Sagarin Ratings for MSU over their next 14 games. I’ve rounded all margins to the nearest half point (Vegas style).
- Vs. IPFW: +25.0
- Vs. San Jose St.: +24.0
- Vs. Texas: -1.5 (neutral court: Texas favored by a point and a half)
- Vs. UW-Green Bay: +17.5
- Vs. Minnesota: +11.5
- Vs. Purdue: +13.0
- At Iowa: +12.0
- Vs. Ohio St: +8.0
- At Minneota: +3.5
- At Northwestern: +11.0
- Vs. Michigan: +16.0
- Vs. Illinois: +9.0
- At Penn St.: +11.0
- Vs. Northwestern: +17.5
(Technically, MSU is also favored to win the next Big Ten game on their schedule: Purdue on the road. But we’ll leave that one alone for now.)
So MSU is, indeed, favored to win 13 of their next 14 games. The Texas game is effectively a coin flip, especially if you give MSU a couple points since the Palace crowd will be heavily Spartan.
Now saying that MSU is favored in 13 of their next 14 games is not the same as saying that the predicted outcome over the next 14 games is 13 Spartan wins. Being favored in a given game just means the odds of winning that game are higher than 50.0%. In 10 of the 13 games MSU is favored in, the predicted margin of victory is higher than 10 points. So MSU’s odds of winning are very high in those games. But the home games against Ohio State and Illinois and the road game against Minnesota (who new coach Tubby Smith has off to a 6-1 start) will not be gimmes.
I’m going to forego attempting to translate predicted margins of victory into percentage odds of winning games (I confess I’d have to pull out the olds college stats textbook to tackle that one). But, all in all, I’d say we should be quite pleased if MSU can win 12 of the next 14. That would put them at 20-3.
And they’ll definitely need to build themselves a buffer heading into the home stretch of the conference season. Their final four regular season games are at Wisconsin, home to Indiana, at Illinois, and at Ohio State–the four highest ranked non-MSU Big Ten teams in the current Sagarin ratings, with three of the four games on the road. A split of those four games would be a healthy achievement.
So a good perch atop the Big Ten standings and national polls seems likely come February 10. But let’s collectively knock on wood, eh?