Michigan is the better team at the moment. That’s not even debatable, after the Wolverines beat the Spartans for a second time and rolled to the Big Ten tournament championship.
Michigan State was the better team earlier and more consistently. That’s not even debatable, as the Spartans flirted with the No. 1 ranking and won the Big Ten regular-season championship.
But it sure is debatable who deserves a spot in the NCAA Tournament’s Detroit regional. Thankfully, I have the answer: The NCAA selection committee should send both Michigan and Michigan State to Little Caesars Arena, or it should send neither.
Sorry, it’s the only equitable solution. Shut up for a second and let me explain.
On the NCAA Tournament criteria sheet, the rivals are about as close as you can get, each projected to be a three seed. In normal years, that’s fine. Plop one in the East, one in the Midwest, ship them to different sites and nobody has to whine about anything.
Except this is not a normal year. There’s one clear advantage for the team deemed to be the higher seed — playing in Detroit next Friday through Sunday provides a rare homecourt advantage. That’s huge, too huge to be awarded to one team based on such narrow differences.
The NCAA isn’t concerned about rivalry spats, so I suspect the committee will find a way to split the differences and send one to Detroit. If it does, and bases its decision on ranking metrics and not talent or reputation, that team should be Michigan.
Most bracketologists have Michigan State seeded slightly higher, although it’s not entirely clear why. The Tom Izzo factor — along with pro prospects Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. — is significant, although John Beilein rightly is drawing raves for his team’s development.
CBS’ Jerry Palm pegs Michigan as a four to San Diego and Michigan State a two in Detroit. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi said Thursday it was “very unlikely” both would land at Little Caesars Arena, and currently has Michigan as a three in Wichita and Michigan State a three in Nashville, with Xavier and Purdue the top two seeds here.
“Now, how much does the committee want Michigan and Michigan State atmosphere in that building, it’s hard to say,” Lunardi said. “You could do that, but it would be going against typical bracketing practice. I’m confident Michigan State will be ahead of Michigan on the seed list, so if there’s a spot in Detroit open, they’ll get it.”
The margins are too slim to get shrieky about it, but the numbers lean toward Michigan in key categories, including the new geeky Quadrant-1 line (defined as victories over a top-30 RPI team at home, or top-50 RPI team on a neutral court, or top-75 team on the road). Take a look:
Michigan (28-7): RPI 14, strength of schedule 52, overall Big Ten record 17-5, Quad-1 record 6-5
Michigan State (29-4): RPI 15, strength of schedule 83, overall Big Ten record 17-3, Quad-1 record 3-4
The Wolverines have one resounding advantage — 2-0 against the Spartans, with double-digit victories in East Lansing (82-72) and New York (75-64). Key elements that favor Michigan State are victories over North Carolina and Purdue and the absence of any horrific losses. In fact, one mundane opponent nudges the needle toward the Spartans — they rallied from a 27-point deficit to win at Northwestern, while Michigan stumbled at Northwestern, arguably its only bad loss.
But finding impressive victories by the Spartans isn’t easy, although it’s not entirely their fault. The Big Ten was heavy at the top and bogus at the bottom, and in a quirk, Michigan State played the top five teams only once in the regular season and split, losing to Michigan and Ohio State, beating Purdue and Nebraska (both at home).
The unbalanced schedule helped the Spartans win the title with a 16-2 mark, and in normal circumstances, 18 games are a better barometer than four games in a tournament weekend. Except this isn’t a normal circumstance, and that unbalanced schedule cost Michigan State several chances at coveted Quad-1 wins.
The overall body of work matters, and Lunardi noted Michigan State finished three games ahead of Michigan. That might be exactly how the 10-person selection committee views it when the brackets come out Sunday.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michigan State in Detroit and Michigan elsewhere, although that would inexplicably minimize the two head-to-head matchups.
There are ever-changing variables, too. Michigan State deserves more credit for hammering Notre Dame when the Irish were ranked No. 5. After a spate of injuries, Notre Dame fell apart, but with star Bonzie Colson back, it clawed back into the mix.
According to an aggregation of 80 credible bracket analyses (yes, we live in a world with 80 credible bracket analyzers, about 78 more than necessary), Michigan State has an average seed of 2.79 to Michigan’s 3.24. That puts them on the same line, and if the committee has a similar slotting, the Spartans would have the better shot at Detroit.
A guaranteed slot? Nope. After the committee identifies its top 16 teams, it divvies them up — two to each of the eight regional sites, with the higher-seeded teams awarded the geographical advantage.
Conference tournaments are yet to be decided, but as it stands now, five teams are vying for the top two spots in Detroit: Xavier, Purdue, Cincinnati, Michigan State, Michigan. Technically, Xavier or Cincinnati could be sent to Nashville or Pittsburgh because those cities are only slightly further from their campuses. But if that doesn’t happen, the road to Detroit could remain blocked (and pot-holed) for Michigan and Michigan State.
Does the NCAA really want to toss aside a prime home-court atmosphere because of a few decimal points or a few miles? It’d be a shame, but it’s the NCAA, which could make a federal case out of a $40 lunch.
Selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen spoke about the process this week, and while he didn’t offer much insight, he did mildly gush when asked about one team.
“Michigan is playing really well right now,” said Rasmussen, the Creighton athletic director. “Their point guard (Zavier Simpson) is doing a great job at both ends of the floor, they’ve got good shooters, they’re really balanced.”
Maybe this is the hidden benefit of the Big Ten holding its tournament earlier. Instead of the conference champ crowned shortly before the brackets are revealed, the committee gets an entire week to debate. Maybe more debate favors Michigan based on the metrics, as well as its nine-game winning streak.
Ideally, the Wolverines and Spartans would meet again deep in the Tournament, even if it threatened sanity in our state. In the absence of that, ideally they’d share the floor at Little Caesars Arena and help fill those shiny red seats. Conference rivals can play at the same site in different regional “pods” — as Michigan and Michigan State did at The Palace in 2013 — but can’t meet until a regional final.
The committee members will determine who deserves to play where, and then try to explain it with more crunched numbers. I don’t know if they’ll make the fair choice or the right choice, but unfortunately, at least half the fans here probably will hate it.
MICHIGAN VS. MSU
RPI – UM 13, MSU 15
AP ranking – UM 7, MSU 4
KenPom ranking – UM 9, MSU 6
Strength of schedule – UM 52, MSU 96
Record – UM 28-7, MSU 29-4
Quadrant 1 record – UM 6-5, MSU 3-4
Quadrant 2 record – UM 5-1, MSU 5-0
Quadrant 1: Home games vs. RPI 1-30, neutral games vs. RPI 1-50, road games vs. RPI 1-75.
Quadrant 2: Home games vs. RPI 31-75, neutral games vs. RPI 51-100, road games vs. RPI 76-135.