Gritty, selfless, seasoned, comfortable playing at different tempos, solid guard play, lacking a true superstar or off-the-charts athlete …
These would be descriptions applicable to Tom Izzo’s Michigan State Spartans year in and year out. For the last quarter century, they’ve always made the NCAA Tournament, they’ve made it to the Final Four about as often as any program, they’ve frequently won either the Big Ten regular season or tournament championship, and they’ve won the national title exactly once (in the 1999-2000 season).
Winners of seven straight games, including an impressive 69-65 victory at 18th-ranked Wisconsin on Tuesday, the 12-4 (4-1 in the Big Ten) Spartans have a very real chance of cracking the AP Top 25 should they win at Illinois on Friday. They could further burnish their resume with a victory over third-ranked Purdue in East Lansing on Monday.
So what sort of respect has this early-season success earned them in the eyes of Michigan’s major mobile sportsbooks? Very little, it turns out.
After Michigan State opened the season with 40/1 odds to win the national championship at BetMGM, that sportsbook now prices the Spartans at 66/1. MSU has also taken a peculiar tumble down the odds board at Caesars, where it is now 80/1 to win it all after being listed at 60/1 on Dec. 19. And DraftKings has the team priced at 75/1 to cut down the nets at the conclusion of March Madness — fifth in the Big Ten behind Purdue (18/1), Ohio State (40/1), Illinois (50/1), and Indiana (60/1).
The Spartans’ odds to win the Big Ten’s regular-season championship are a different story, as they’re Caesars’ second choice behind Purdue (-125) at 6/1. So what gives? Why the disparity between conference and national expectations?
“Michigan State has a better conference record than Ohio State and Rutgers, but we’ve taken action that would suggest that Rutgers and Ohio State may have a better chance at making a run in March,” said BetMGM Sports Trader Seamus Magee. “Another example is the ACC. Clemson is 5-0 to start conference play and currently has better odds than Duke to win the regular-season title. But does it surprise you that Duke has better odds to win the national championship?”
“Michigan State should go on and have a pretty good season,” said DraftKings Content Specialist Julian Edlow. “They’ve won seven in a row, a bunch of conference games in a row, so that gives them a nice lead now even when they level off a little bit. That helps them in the conference, but doesn’t necessarily help their ability to go deep into the tournament.”
Edlow uses 15-1 Purdue’s current situation to further illustrate his point.
“Purdue’s really good and can definitely make a Final Four run, but again, they’re the best team in the Big Ten. If you put them in the SEC or Big 12, where would they be?” he said Wednesday. “Teams that finish fifth in the Big 12 have the potential to win a conference like the Big Ten. West Virginia and Baylor are playing tonight. Both are 0-3 in conference. One of them is going to be 0-4 and is still a really good team. The AP rankings are based off what these teams have done, and the odds are using the power ratings and projecting what the teams are gonna be.”
Magee offers a slightly different explanation for why Purdue’s national title odds don’t square up with its ranking, saying, “I think Purdue is a very good basketball team and certainly capable of putting together a run in March. And while a team’s play on the court is a motivating factor in moving a team’s March Madness odds, we also put a huge stress on what kind of action we’ve taken on teams.
“So far we haven’t seen much sharp action on Purdue to win the national title to suggest we move off the 16/1 price we currently sit at. These prices are so fluid, though. They could easily jump a few teams with a few huge performances over the coming weeks.”
Both Edlow and Magee consider the Big 12 to be, far and away, the best conference in college basketball right now, followed by the SEC, Big East, and Big Ten, in varying order.
‘This isn’t one of Tom Izzo’s best teams’
This year’s Michigan State squad is undeniably solid — and unspectacular.
The Spartans’ best player is probably senior forward Joey Hauser, who averages 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game while shooting better than 41% from 3-point range. The team also boasts an experienced, canny backcourt in leading scorer Tyson Walker (13.9 ppg) and top assist man A.J. Hoggard (6.5 apg).
“Guard play is huge in the [NCAA] tournament,” Edlow said. “They’ve got two guys who handle the ball, answer the moment, and make their free throws. I would be shocked if poor guard play were one of the reasons they would get bounced. I don’t think they’re gonna be in a close game down the stretch and have those guards be the reason they’re gonna blow a game.”
As for why and how the Spartans could see their postseason run derailed, Edlow said, “That’s kind of the beauty of March Madness. These are the type of teams that [Izzo] builds. I think Michigan State’s really good, I trust them, they’re veteran-led. It’s just who they run into in March and the randomness of having a bad game against a team that’s capable of beating them.”
That being said, Edlow added, “This isn’t one of Tom Izzo’s best teams. This isn’t gonna be a two seed.”
Bettors better chill ’til the Spartans lose
One thing that might wind up benefiting Michigan State over the long term is the early-season injury of forward Malik Hall. Hall’s absence allowed sophomore guard Jaden Akins and junior center Mady Sissoko to flourish, with both now major contributors after logging limited minutes last season. Now that Hall’s back in action, Izzo has been content to have him come off the bench in the interest of continuity.
“That’s one of their key veteran guys and they kind of struggled at first without him, but I do think that gives those other guys a chance to build character and get big minutes,” observed Edlow. “Giving other guys a chance to step up, get minutes, do well — I think that hurt them for a little bit, and now you see them on a winning streak. So I think it helps them now and in the future.”
Should Michigan State knock off Illinois for its eighth straight victory on Friday, Edlow advises true believers to wait until the streak ends to get down on the Spartans.
“Betting a team that’s riding a seven- or eight-game winning streak probably isn’t the best time to pounce on them,” said Edlow, who expects the Illini to be favored by up to 5 points when wagering for Friday’s game opens.
Photo: Dale Young/USA TODAY