By Brad Thompson–

This Saturday’s prime time matchup between Michigan State and Illinois will go a long way in determining the rankings in the Big Ten and the Big Ten Tournament seeding, but regardless of who wins both teams should still make Big Dance.

This may seem like a bold statement considering both teams are struggling of late and hovering around .500 in conference play. The Spartans have lost six of their last eight and the Fighting Illini have dropped six of their last 10. Don’t get me wrong, this is a huge game for both teams, I just don’t consider it a must win to reach the tournament.

When you look at the Big Ten Conference as a whole, how many teams make the NCAA Tournament? I say five this year. In a year when the ACC and PAC-10 Conferences are both down and some are suggesting the Big East will get as many as 11 teams to the Dance, the Big Ten should have at least five tickets punched to the tourney.

So if a minimum of five schools makes it – assuming Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue are in – that leaves two spots for Illinois, Michigan State, Minnesota or Penn State.

Right now MSU is only 6-7 in the conference and has a gaudy 11 losses, but their strength of schedule – sixth in the country – should help their chances. And although the selection committee says they don’t take into account a team’s tournament history or who the coach is, it’s hard to overlook Tom Izzo and his Spartans past excellence, making six Final Four appearances in the last 12 years.

Illinois has more conference and overall wins than MSU. The Illini also sport a 4-5 record versus ranked opponents and defeated the Spartans in their first matchup 71-62. The remaining schedule also favors Illinois. After their game in East Lansing they play Ohio State, Iowa, Purdue and Indiana. Even though they play at OSU and at Purdue it gives them the opportunity for two quality wins and doesn’t hurt too much if they loss against the favored Buckeyes and Boilermakers. Iowa and Indiana only have six conference wins combined and are the two cellar dwellers in the conference.

Here are the reasons I say Penn State and Minnesota are left out of the tourney or only make it if the Big Ten gets six teams.

Penn State has a 7-7 conference record and the same overall record as MSU (14-11), but their non-conference schedule is full of cupcakes compared with Michigan State’s. PSU didn’t play a ranked opponent before conference play and had a bad loss to Maine at home. The Nittany Lions did split their games with both Illinois (1-1) and MSU (1-1) this season.

Minnesota at 17-9, 6-8 in the Big Ten probably has a better chance of making it than Penn State does. Their non-conference schedule was better than PSU, but only slightly, it doesn’t rival Michigan State’s strength of schedule. The Gophers did beat then eight-ranked North Carolina, but so did Illinois 11 days later. Minnesota’s remaining schedule is without a ranked opponent, so that hurts from the standpoint of increasing their quality wins, but they do face Penn State and Michigan State again.

What does this all mean? Advantage: Illinois and Michigan State.

Clearly a lot of meaningful basketball is yet to be played. I’ll be watching on Saturday to see how crazy the fans get at the Breslin Center and how the Illini react, but whatever the outcome, Illinois and Michigan State should both make the NCAA Tournament.

Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.

brad thompson bio pic Thompson: Illinois MSU Game Huge, But Loser Should Still Make Tourney

Brad Thompson

Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.

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