Is Michigan State Overvalued After Their Big Ten Tourney Run?

By Jason Lisk

Michigan State was given a No. 4 seed by the NCAA selection committee, after running through the Big Ten tournament. Meanwhile, everyone seems to be picking Tom Izzo’s gang to go to the Final Four, with many picking them to win it. (This isn’t actually true, unless you happen to be in an office pool in East Lansing, or in ESPN’s Bristol studios, as all the pundits picked the Spartans).

So is Michigan State overvalued, or are the people letting the selection committee know just how inept they are in evaluating teams?

The selection committee has an interesting task, to which there is no perfect answer. Sometimes they take injuries into account; sometimes they don’t. They have to select 36 at-large teams and then seed the 68 entrants. There is not enough time to properly analyze all of them. However, they most likely missed big time with Michigan State, and I say that not based on speculation, but on the numbers from this year.

Michigan State’s season is a tale of two teams. One, the preseason top five team with plenty of veteran talent and ability. The other, an injury-filled unit missing at least one of its four key starters: Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, and Branden Dawson. As it turns out, those two teams played an almost identical number of games, and an equal number of games against tournament-quality teams (I’ll define that as Top 70 in Pomeroy’s ratings). Here’s how those two teams did (note: I included the North Carolina game as healthy because Gary Harris played, though he was hurt and missed 3 games on either side of the contest):

  • Healthy Team: 15-3 overall, 7-3 against tournament-quality teams
  • Injured Team: 11-5 overall, 3-5 against tournament-quality teams

There is much debate about how the committee should account for injuries. They should certainly be cautious when projecting the future, with an immediate injury (take Kyle Collinsworth of BYU for example, who played every game but was likely lost for the year in the final game). In this case, though, there was ample time and evidence to conclude that current Michigan State was better than overall Michigan State, and had a healthy profile to prove it. The committee makes judgments on plenty of teams based on fewer than 10 games against tournament-quality opponents.

I have little doubt, for example, that the games that Marcus Smart missed with Oklahoma State due to suspension got discounted. Oklahoma State had a RPI in the high 40’s because of those games, and went 0-3 against Texas, Oklahoma, and Baylor while he was out.

In Michigan State’s case, we can look at the Pomeroy ratings rise and fall with the health of the team. After the first 6 games, they were 6th in the ratings. Four games later, with Harris injured, they dropped to 14th. In the five games that everyone was on the court again, they rose back to 8th. The Spartans then went through a 13 game stretch where they were missing Payne, Appling, and/or Dawson. They dropped back to 15th. After everyone returned, they played in 6 more games including the Big Ten tournament, rising back to 10th.

My estimate is that healthy Michigan State would have finished about 4th or 5th in the Pomeroy rankings, and had the profile of a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. An injured Michigan State was closer to 24th or 25th, and had the profile of a No. 7 or No. 8 seed. Split the difference, and don’t try to account for healthy Michigan State entering tournament play, and you get a No. 4 seed.

Is Michigan State overvalued? Perhaps a little bit, in the sense that no one this year has more than a 16% chance. They also are better than the 10th best team in the country with all the starters playing. They are one of the five best teams in the country, and there was ample evidence for the Committee to see that, and seed accordingly, if they chose to evaluate it.

Instead, we get a bracket where two of the best six teams are No. 4 seeds. Good job, good effort, selection committee.