By the Numbers: How Impressive Was Michigan State's Final Four Run?
Coming off a season in which they lost to the eventual champion Connecticut Huskies in the Elite Eight, no one expected this kind of season out of the Michigan State Spartans.
They lost Adrien Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling to the NBA, and with them went their combined 13.3 win shares.
As a result, the Spartans were widely regarded as the second-best team in their own conference, behind the Wisconsin Badgers. The Big Ten media liked the Spartans to finish second to the Badgers, but that didn't even happen.
The Spartans finished the regular season in a three-way tie for third place, behind both Maryland and Wisconsin, with an in-conference record of 12-6. They lost to three non-tournament teams, and even lost an overtime game to Texas Southern of the SWAC.
But, when the time came for the Big Ten tournament to begin, the Spartans started to flex their muscles. They made a run to their conference championship, and nearly edged out Wisconsin in an overtime thriller. They may not have won it, but that run had to give them a ton of confidence coming into the tournament.
That's why, as a 7 seed, the Spartans came in as legitimate contenders for the Final Four -- and they did not disappoint this time.
On Saturday, Michigan State is set to take on Duke for a spot in the NCAA Championship game. However, even if the Spartans can't slip past the Dukies, they've had a really impressive run just to get to where they stand today.
How They Got Here
In the first round, the Spartans took on the 11-seeded Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia finished the season with a nERD of 10.05 -- 36th in the nation. nERD, for those of you who are new to the site, is a metric we use to determine the number of points a particular team would win by against an average opponent on a neutral court. Michigan State held the Bulldogs and their mediocre offensive attack to 22 first half points, and withstood a second half push that saw the Bulldogs outscore the Spartans 41-35.
This was just one of two games in which our numbers would expect the Spartans to come out on top, given their regular-season and conference tournament play. Accordingly, they took care of the Bulldogs and moved on to face Virginia in the Round of 32.
The Spartans matchup with the Cavaliers was the first of two games in which the odds were stacked against them. We projected the Hoos to win by more than seven points due to their number-two ranked offense and suffocating defense. But the Spartans proved the numbers wrong, and took down Virginia by six points.
Michigan State held Virginia to under 30% shooting and a total of 54 points. They won the battle of the defenses and rode Travis Trice and his game-high 23 points to the Sweet 16.
The Spartans would go on to face the Oklahoma Sooners in a matchup in which the numbers weren't in their favor. Our Game Simulator expected the Sooners to win over 56% of their matchups with Sparty, and the simulator predicted Oklahoma to win by a margin of over two points.
Though the odds weren't what they were against Virginia, the Spartans overcame once again. They won by four points and out-defended the 14th-ranked Sooners defense. Michigan State held them to 36% shooting and won the turnover battle 7 to 5.
The Spartans again faced off against a tough opponent with a strong defense in the form of Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals in the Elite Eight. The Cardinals finished the season with a nERD of 13.93, and with the eighth-best team in terms of defensive efficiency.
Accordingly, we expected a very tight Elite Eight matchup between the two squads -- our projections liked Michigan State to win by less than one point. It was only fitting, then, that the game took an extra five minutes to decide the victor. The two teams went to overtime where the Spartans outscored the Cards 11-5 in order to clinch their spot in this year's Final Four.
In terms of recent history, the Spartans' tournament run has been incredible. Their opponents' average nERD is 14.33, which is the closest equivalent to a team like the Ohio State Buckeyes.
More impressive, though, is the fact that Michigan State has out-defended their opponents, who, on average, fall within the 93rd percentile in the country. To put that into perspective, that's like playing a defensive-minded team like Butler four times in a row.
And if you thought UConn's run to the Final Four was impressive last year, Michigan State's is actually better. UConn's average opponent nERD was 13.68 a season ago, an average that wasn't even the best of the Final Four teams in 2014. That title went to Kentucky, who defeated four teams with an average nERD of 14.71. That 14.71 average was the highest of all Final Four teams since 2010.
This year's Michigan State team.
Can they do what Connecticut did just a year ago, or will they end up like Kentucky did a year ago, as the runner up? We'll have to wait and see.
For now, let's admire the Spartans' improbable run to the Final Four.