Prior to Michigan State's loss at Indiana last night, most observers would have rightly labeled the Spartans as the hottest team in the Big Ten, if not the entire country. In addition to having the feel of a hot squad, several numbers backed up the notion that the Spartans were heating up. They were 7-0 in the month of February before last night's setback. Back on January 31 they were a distant second to Ohio State in the Big Ten in efficiency margin, but as of yesterday they were comfortably atop the league in per-possession performance. Nationally just a handful of teams improved their KenPom.com rank as much as MSU did over the last four weeks. Clearly the Spartans were deserving of the "hot" label, and I would argue that they should retain said label even after their loss to the Hoosiers.
Including last night's results, Michigan State continues to maintain the highest efficiency margin in the Big Ten for games played since February 1. In fact, their +0.17 scoring margin in the month of February far outpaces that of their next-closest competitor (Indiana at +0.11). Isolating a given team's per-possession performance in the final month of the regular season like this can help us better evaluate which teams are peaking at the right time. However, we must be careful with such evaluation since strengths of schedules will vary.
One method of overcoming the presence of uncommon opponents in a given time period is to compare teams based on how well they did above the average per-possession performance of their in-conference opponents. I've defined this concept as points per possession above average (PPP-AA). Points per possession above average considers how many points per possession a team produced above the average defensive efficiency of its combined opponents. For example, Michigan State's offense has produced 1.06 points per trip in February against Big Ten opponents with an average defensive efficiency of 1.02. Therefore, Tom Izzo's squad has scored +0.04 points per possession above average this month.
This same concept can be applied to the defensive side of the ball as points allowed per possession above average (Opp. PPP-AA). A defense will actually want to hold opponents to below their average per-possession performance, but I use the phrase "above" average to be consistent. As a result, a negative value is desired here. To illustrate, consider that the Spartans have averaged 0.89 points allowed per possession in February against Big Ten foes with an average offensive efficiency of 1.02. Their points allowed per possession above average is thus -0.13. Despite the admittedly confusing terminology, this is an impressive value.
Gasaway-like, we can bring these two values together to form an efficiency margin above average (EM-AA). Using the Big Ten as an example, the following table brings together these data for the month of February (includes games played through last night).
Michigan State has been downright dominant whether or not one accounts for the performance of its opponents on a per-possession basis. There are a few other teams that have an identical EM and EM-AA over this final month, but the ones with differing values are those worth exploring in more depth.
If we were judging the Wolverines based solely on their February efficiency margin, we'd conclude they've been the third hottest team in the league. But efficiency margin above average values them just as much as similarly-hot Indiana. Michigan gets a boost because of the job they've done on the defensive end against a quality slate of offensive opponents. Those opponents have averaged 1.04 points per possession in-conference, and John Beilein's team has held them to just 0.98 points per trip -- good enough for the second best adjustment on defense in the league.
ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan penned a piece earlier this week on OSU's recent offensive struggles, astutely pointing out that its offensive efficiency has been wretched in its last three losses. To that assessment I would add one qualifier: the Buckeyes have faced the toughest defensive slate in the Big Ten in the month of February. Their seven opponents have had an average in-conference defensive efficiency of 0.99, and Thad Matta's team has managed to score 1.05 points per trip against those league foes. A more troubling factor may be that Ohio State's been surprisingly average on the defensive end, holding their opponents to more or less their expected output of 1.01 points per trip.
Based on wins alone, one could make a case that Northwestern has been a hot team in February. The team's five wins would put it among the league leaders. Furthermore, the Wildcats' February efficiency margin of +0.04 would put them in a lock with Wisconsin for fourth in the league. But the efficiency margin above average does not particularly care for Evanston's finest. What's the beef? While the NU offense has been firing away, its defense has been porous against a relatively weak group of offensive opponents. Northwestern's February foes have had an average in-conference offensive efficiency of 1.00, and yet those squads have collectively scored 1.11 points per trip against this defense.
If there ever was a time for Illinois to get its offensive game together, it would have been in February. Only Northwestern faced a group of opponents with an average defensive efficiency worse than those which opposed the Illini. Yet the squad underachieved on offense against this schedule by about 0.06 points per trip while allowing those challengers to go for 0.07 points per possession above their average on the other end of the floor. So while Illinois may "look" similar to Minnesota in the February win-loss and efficiency margin columns, the efficiency margin above average shows that this team has been the worst in the league over the last month save for Nebraska.
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