Last time I discussed two improvements to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings. One adjustment was for missing players, and the other was a new approach to adjusting for on-court match-ups using a technique called cluster analysis. Applying these adjustments, I determined that Michigan State had a 51.9% chance of winning, with an average margin of victory predicted around 1 point. However, even this of course neglects two very important factors. The first factor is that after Virginia’s loss to Tennessee by 35 points, Joe Harris went to coach Tony Bennett’s house on New Year’s Eve to discuss the team’s issues. This seemingly has resulted in a new, transformed Virginia team. The Wahoos have only lost two games since: a close loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and an overtime loss at former ACC rival Maryland. The other 21 games have all been wins, including the ACC regular season and tournament championships, and quality wins over North Carolina, Pittsburgh (twice), Duke, Syracuse, and Memphis. Second, Michigan State played a significant portion of the year with injuries to key players. Branden Dawson, Keith Appling, and Adreian Payne have all missed time this year to one injury or another. Experts argue Michigan State is a better performing team with all three healthy and 100%.
I looked at a couple metrics to rate Virginia since the course of their season changed with that New Year’s Eve meeting. First, the Cavaliers have posted a BPI of 93.0 since the Tennessee loss, compared to an 87.0 yearly average, an increase of 6.9%. Pomeroy’s metric (adjusted for injury in the full-year case), also shows Virginia has played better since the Tennessee game. Their rating since the Tennessee game is 3.2% higher than their yearly rating. So indeed, Virginia has played better since the Tennessee game.
Michigan State also sees its ratings boost. It’s ESPN BPI for games where both teams were fully healthy is 91.1 compared to 85.4 for the year. This represents an increase of 6.7% over their yearly average. Using Pomeroy’s metrics (adjusted for injury in the full-year case), Michigan State plays better by 3.9% over their yearly average when they and their opponent are fully healthy.
I let these values represent each team’s ceiling. However, these ideal scenarios aren’t the only way these teams played this year, and I will still use their full-year metric in some way. To do so, I weight the ideal scenario (since this game will be played under the ideal scenario for both teams) twice that of the full-year. Doing so gives Virginia a 63.7% chance of winning before the match-up adjustment. The match-up adjustment knocks this down to a 50.9% chance of Virginia winning.
Considering the way the teams have performed at their peak, and combining peak performance with full-year performance puts Virginia at a slight edge. So, given that this game is virtually a toss-up, what can give one team the edge over the other?
Analyzing the teams’ styles, we see that Michigan State is a highly efficient shooting team, with an effective field goal percentage of 54.7%, good enough for 13th in the nation. They do not really stand out in any other area of offense, although they are in the top 100 in protecting the ball, turning the ball over on only 17.2% of possessions. In MSU’s two fully healthy losses, they lost to Illinois with an eFG% of only 45.7% and a TO% of 28.6% and to Ohio St. with a turnover ratio of 24.6%. Both Ohio State and Illinois play somewhat similar defensive styles to Virginia, with a slow-pace (all are 298th or lower in defensive pace) with top 11 defensive efficiencies. However, pace is where the comparisons end. Virginia’s strengths are minimizing eFG% and dominating the defensive boards, while generating a turnover rate that is only mid-pack. Ohio State is also strong in limiting the opponents shooting and strong at generating turnovers, while being relatively weak on the defensive boards. Illinois is not dominant in any area defensively, but above average to good in each category. To win this game, Virginia will have to continue to dominate the defensive glass, and either limit Michigan State to an eFG% under 50% or force a turnover ratio over 20%.
Virginia should have no trouble winning the battle on the glass, being a great defensive rebounding team (5th in the nation, limiting opponents to offensive rebounds on only 25.9% of missed shots), while Michigan State is a mediocre offensive rebounding team (104th in the nation, grabbing only 33.4% of their missed shots). Since the Wahoos are not a team that tries to create turnovers, this game looks like it will come down to Michigan State’s shooting against UVa’s shooting defense. Virginia must contest as many shots as possible, and even then hope the Spartans aren’t knocking down shots left and right. As was evident against Coastal Carolina, Virginia struggled when its opponents hit shots. Coastal started out 5 for 9 on three point attempts in the first half, despite two of those made attempts coming with a hand in the face.
When Virginia is on offense, there doesn’t appear to be a game changing match-up. Virginia’s offense is above average to good in all areas. Michigan State’s main defensive strength is defensive rebounding. The offensive glass is an area Virginia has all but given up on in NCAA tournament play. Virginia had NO offensive rebounds against Coastal Carolina, and only six against Memphis. Instead, during tourney-time, Tony Bennett seems to have instructed his team to get several players back in favor of a set defense over an offensive put-back opportunity.
Finally, in a game as much of a toss-up as this, it could come down to free throw shooting. Neither team is particularly great from the line. Michigan State generates only 34% as many free throw attempts as they do field goal attempts, good for 300th in the nation, and only shoot 70.4% at the charity stripe (163rd in the nation). The Cavaliers, meanwhile, shoot a paltry 67.1% from the line (272nd in the nation) but at least get to the line more often, attempting 42.4% as many free throw attempts as they do field goal attempts. Whichever team is ahead at the end of the game might not necessarily win it. With a 50.9% chance of winning, Virginia has the higher chance to be ahead in the waning minutes. However, toward the end of the game when the losing team MUST foul, Michigan State has the higher chance to hold on to a lead due to their higher FT%.
This is truly a toss-up of epic proportions. Being a Wahoo fan, I have no doubt Virginia will win the battle of the boards by a wide margin when MSU is on offense. I also don’t see Virginia’s defense creating many turnovers. However, I did see in person Virginia contest almost every shot in the first half against Coastal Carolina. This time contesting shots will work in their favor and Michigan State will knock down shots well below their yearly clip. A close game at halftime will be opened up in the second half, as Virginia slowly builds its way to an 8 point lead in the closing minute. An eight point lead will be enough to ensure free throws are not an issue. MSU will not come all the way back in the final minute and Virginia will move on to the Elite Eight. Virginia 67, Michigan State 62