The final week of the regular season for college basketball is upon us. The NCAA tournament is right around the corner, and surprisingly both Michigan State and Michigan are on bubble watch right now.
At the start of the season I don't think anybody could have guessed that this would be the case. Michigan State was ranked second in the preseason polls and Michigan was bringing back a team with almost no experience. MSU fans were talking about a third straight trip to the Final Four and Michigan fans were seemingly reaching for optimism by predicting a trip to the NIT. Now both fan bases are simply hoping to be part of the Big Dance.
The Spartans and Wolverines are just two of the many teams on the bubble right now, but what makes their situation so interesting is that they play each other on Saturday. Not only will this game help determine the final Big Ten standings and potentially which team gets a bye in the Big Ten tournament, but it could very well burst the losing team's bubble. It is that important, and the NCAA tournament implications only add to the intrigue of this rivalry game.
Interestingly, the first time these two teams played, at the end of January, the outlook of each of their seasons was much different. While Michigan State was on a two-game losing streak, nobody expected the Spartans to experience losses of 20 points or more to Iowa, Wisconsin and Purdue in the wake of being upset at home by Michigan. At the same time, nobody expected the Wolverines, who were on a six-game losing skid, to pull off the upset and play their way into the NCAA tournament discussion over the last month. It has been quite a dramatic twist since their first meeting, and now their second meeting could very well determine which team is getting ready for the NCAA tournament and which team is settling for the NIT.
Let's take a look at where each team stands as far as making the NCAA tournament goes.
Michigan State Spartans (16-12, 8-8)
Before Sunday's blowout loss at home to Purdue, Michigan State appeared to be in pretty good shape with making the tournament. All of the major bracketology websites had the Spartans in the field of 68, and the only debate was about their seed.
It remains to be seen how the new bracket predictions will look as they come out later today, but at the very least MSU no longer is a slam-dunk pick to make the tournament. There was work to be done either way, but after picking up wins against Illinois and Minnesota, I don't think many expected the Spartans to be dominated like they were against Purdue. Perhaps this is a case of being too reactive to one game, but Michigan State's room for error is quite small. An upset against Purdue could have sealed the Spartans' ticket to the Big Dance, but now their path to the tournament may require wins against both Iowa and Michigan this week.
There are many different scenarios that can be considered, especially with the Big Ten tournament still to be played next week, but let's first focus on a perfect regular season finish for Michigan State. If the Spartans beat both Iowa and Michigan to finish 10-8 in the Big Ten, I would imagine that they are as good as in. Their overall record wouldn't be outstanding, but going 10-8 in the Big Ten isn't easy no matter who you are, and perception-wise this is still Michigan State. I think two wins for the Spartans this week would put them in the Big Dance regardless of what happens in the Big Ten tournament, as they would likely have a first-round bye. A loss would come to a respectable team and wouldn't damage their resume too much, and a win would cement MSU's bid for sure.
If Michigan State were to go 1-1 this week, it would be in some trouble. Losing to Iowa for a second time would add another bad loss to MSU's resume, and being swept by a fellow bubble team in Michigan would not be good for the Spartans' argument to make the tourney. Whichever loss you pick in the 1-1 scenario is going to require MSU to at least win one game in the Big Ten tournament. I think a 1-1 week coupled with two Big Ten tournament wins would be enough to get them into the field, and even only one win might be enough depending on what happens to other bubble teams. If the Spartans lose their Big Ten tournament opener to finish the season losing three out of their last four games, however, they have no chance of making the tournament.
The final scenario for the regular season is a week that includes losses to both Iowa and Michigan. This is obviously the worst-case scenario out there, as the Spartans would have to make a run in the Big Ten tournament to even think about making the Big Dance. A 16-14 regular season record is not impressive no matter how hard the schedule, and since 1985, no at-large team with more than 14 losses has made the field. Translation: If the Spartans drop both of their games this week, they will likely have to win the Big Ten tournament to be selected to the NCAA tournament.
Michigan Wolverines (18-12, 8-9)
Had Wisconsin not lucked out and beat Michigan on a banked in three-pointer at the buzzer last week, the Wolverines would be able to cement their NCAA tournament bid with a win against MSU. That is in the past now, though, so Michigan has to play the cards it has been dealt. Those cards include yet another do or die game, this time coming against the Spartans.
Unlike Michigan State, only two scenarios for the final week of the regular season exist for Michigan: a win over the Spartans or a loss to them. This simplifies Michigan's NCAA tournament hopes quite a bit.
A loss to MSU would give Michigan an 18-13 regular season record. To even have a slim hope of making the tournament, Michigan would need to win one game in the Big Ten tourney. Let's pretend for a second that the Wolverines were to lose their second game, giving them a final record of 19-14. Would they even be on the bubble at this point? Well, yes. Arizona made the tournament with a 19-14 record back in 2008, and like this particular scenario, finished the regular season with a loss and went 1-1 in the Pac-10 tournament.
A 19-14 record would at the very least keep Michigan in consideration, but the Wolverines' chances of making the NCAA tournament would not be good. Unlike the 19-14 Arizona team that made the tournament a few seasons back, Michigan's RPI would not likely end up in the 30s with a 1-3 finish. The Wolverines also would not have five wins against the RPI top 50 or a top five strength of schedule. Both of those factors played into Arizona making the Big Dance despite a rather unimpressive record.
All things considered, a loss to Michigan State would likely require Michigan to win at least two games in the Big Ten tournament to be seriously in the conversation on Selection Sunday. I tend to think Michigan would still be left out, but if it won three games and made it to the championship game of the Big Ten tournament, the Wolverines would probably be going dancing.
If Michigan beats Michigan State on Saturday, potentially bursting the Spartans' bubble in the process, the Wolverines will enter the Big Ten tournament in good shape. They would likely be slotted as the fourth or fifth seed in Indianapolis, giving them a first-round bye and a matchup against a team like Illinois. In this scenario, a win to advance to the semifinals seems like it would punch Michigan's ticket to the Big Dance. A loss wouldn't outright burst Michigan's bubble, but it would lessen the chances of a return to the tourney greatly. Michigan would likely be right on the edge with a 19-13 record, and the pessimist in me thinks the NIT would be coming to Ann Arbor.
If Michigan State wants to run its NCAA tournament streak to 14 years, it can't afford to lose both games this week unless Tom Izzo has some magic stored up for the Big Ten tournament. A split with Iowa and Michigan would be less than ideal, but as Arizona showed a few seasons ago, 14-loss teams can make the tournament if they have a strong RPI and SOS. MSU would wind up having a similar resume, so two wins in Indy could theoretically be just enough for a ticket to the Big Dance.
The smoothest road to the tournament for MSU is simply beating both Iowa and Michigan, as this would likely put MSU in the field of 68 regardless of what happens in Indy. A win to open the Big Ten tournament would seal the Spartans' bid, and although a loss would bring some doubt on Selection Sunday, they likely would still be able to make it.
For Michigan, its path to the NCAA tournament isn't all that complex. The Wolverines can probably get in with a win over Michigan State and one win in the Big Ten tournament. A win over MSU and a loss to open the Big Ten tournament would put Michigan on the edge of missing the Big Dance. Finally, a loss to the Spartans would require a big-time run in Indy to get off the bubble and into the field of 68. Realistically, I'm talking about a need to win at least three games in this particular scenario.