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Michigan State basketball: Is Spartans’ NCAA Tournament success understated?

It takes elite teams to beat MSU.



Michigan State basketball
© Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

While the Big Ten may not see a ton of March success, Michigan State basketball has been somewhat carrying the torch.

It’s been a little over a week since the Michigan State basketball NCAA tournament loss. This year, it came in agonizing fashion against a Kansas State team that played perhaps their best game of the season. Markquis Nowell etched his name into the minds of MSU fans forever as a Spartan killer.

As I’ve finally gotten over it, I was trying to determine where this loss ranks amongst the most painful in MSU history when I was reminded of all the great teams that have knocked MSU out.

Last year’s Duke team that made the Final Four. The two North Carolina teams in 2005 and 2009 that won it all. Heck, people forget the George Mason run in 2006 started with a win over Michigan State in the Round of 64. The Spartans have won a lot of games in the NCAA tournament under Tom Izzo. But when I think about all of the great teams it took to send them home, it begs the question: is Michigan State’s NCAA tournament success… actually understated?

Let’s start at a high level. Michigan State has made 25 NCAA tournament appearances under Tom Izzo. If we take away the 2000 national championship season, that leaves 24 teams that have beaten MSU in this tournament. Three of those teams (2005 and 2009 North Carolina, 2015 Duke) have gone on to win the national title. Six more opponents went on to play for a national championship after beating MSU.

  • 1999 Duke
  • 2001 Arizona
  • 2008 Memphis
  • 2010 Butler
  • 2014 Connecticut
  • 2019 Texas Tech

To take this a step further, only eight opponents that have defeated Michigan State have failed to make the Final Four. In other words, beating MSU translates to about a 67 percent chance of getting to or already being in the Final Four. Michigan State’s 24 opponents are averaging 3.8 wins in the NCAA tournament, meaning on average they are advancing to at least the Sweet 16, and more times than not, the Elite Eight.

Nine of MSU’s 24 losses have come against No. 1 seeds. One-third of MSU’s losses have come at the hands of Duke or North Carolina. The average seed for those eight Duke and North Carolina teams was 1.25 (six No. 1 seeds and two No. 2 seeds).

For all of MSU’s success in the tournament, there is also a strong argument that they have earned every bit of it. In Michigan State’s eight Final Four trips, the Spartans have really only benefitted from a busted bracket twice. In 16 games during the second weekend of the tournament, MSU has faced a team seeded lower than 7 four times. We can calculate “seeds gained via upset” to determine the strength of the path to the Final Four by subtracting the actual seed faced from the minimum number expected. The 2000 team faced the strongest seed path possible (benefitting from no upsets), while the teams in 2009, 2015, and 2019 gained three seeds via two No. 7 vs. No. 10 results and one No. 4 over a No. 1 seed.

To expand on this point, in the seven losses Michigan State basketball has had in the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight, the Spartans have faced a team seeded outside the top four just once. They lost to 7-seeded Connecticut after taking down 1-seed Virginia in the Sweet 16. Following 19 first-round victories, Michigan State has faced a double-digit seed in the round of 32 just five times.

The point is, while the Spartans have been tremendous in the NCAA tournament, their runs have ended at the hands of some really good teams. Teams that beat Michigan State in March are typically on to special things. Think about some of the players on these teams. Players like Vince Carter, Derrick Rose, Tyler Hansbrough, Gordon Hayward, and Paolo Banchero have all helped take down MSU in the NCAA tournament under Tom Izzo.

With a little more luck involving upsets in their path, MSU could be looking at an even more impressive tournament run. The obvious problem is that so many times Michigan State has been the lower-seeded team pulling the upset. At the end of the day, to win a national championship, you’re going to have to beat good teams. MSU has obviously done that as well. The higher-seeded teams advance for a reason. It’s no coincidence that of the eight Final Four trips for the Spartans, five have come as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

In conclusion, I do think MSU’s tournament success is a tad understated. It’s not egregious. They haven’t gotten consistently screwed with bad draws or chalky brackets. I’d describe their overall luck as fair. The Spartans have had pretty bad luck running into really strong Duke and North Carolina teams over the years. But seeing as those programs are good year in and year out, it’s also expected if you continue to advance.

Michigan State basketball has had favorable paths to the Final Four as well in 2001 and 2010. So, it’s a little good luck, a little bad luck. Over the course of 25 years, I’ve determined that it’s evened out. Hopefully we get 25 more years of data points to evaluate.


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