By Seth Gruen–

(CBS) The Big Ten Tournament is an appetizer of sorts before we go onto the NCAA Tournament. And while the event is always one to look forward to, we’ve been cheated with a paltry portion lately.

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Throughout recent years, programs like Indiana and Purdue haven’t produced teams to the standards those schools expect, making the conference tournament fairly predictable. Times are changing now.

As we’ve seen widespread success among the conference’s bluebloods — save Illinois (yes, with the 14th-most wins in college basketball history, the Illini are in this category) — we’re going to be treated to a Big Ten Tournament that should mirror the parity of the sport’s main event a week later.

Michigan State, Maryland, Iowa and Indiana have at, at times, looked like the conference’s best team. Any could win it all this weekend, and there’s still NCAA Tournament seeding to be sorted out among those teams. So per usual, the Big Ten Tournament will have heavy implications.

Should the Spartans or Hoosiers win, each would have an argument for a No. 1 seed. For Michigan State, it would virtually be a lock. Iowa and Maryland will look to eliminate any doubt that bizarre late-season losses have caused.

Then there are the teams just fighting to get in.

Both Ohio State and Michigan are out of the Big Dance as of now, behind other schools and in need of help. A deep run, obviously, could help them, which makes even Thursday’s games compelling.

Ohio State plays Penn State, and Michigan faces Northwestern.

Of course, what makes the upcoming Big Ten Tournament so interesting are all the questions that need to be answered. Here’s a look at some of them:

Who will win?

I’m picking Michigan State, which is somewhat of a default in a crowded field. There’s no better program within the conference — or maybe even nationally — that’s best at distinguishing itself in a foggy field.

This year, the Spartans have the conference’s best player, Denzel Valentine. In these tournament situations, which allow no time to practice between games, teams rely on their stars to carry them.

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What do Michigan and Ohio State need to do to get into the NCAA Tournament?

To reach the NCAA Tournament, the Wolverines and Buckeyes each need to win at least two games in the conference tournament — and even that may not be enough.

With four losses in the last five games, Michigan played itself put of solid position to get an at-large bid.

A win over Northwestern on Thursday would say little to the committee. Michigan is essentially playing for a chance to play Indiana. Beat the Hoosiers, and we can more realistically start talking about the Wolverines’ chances.

The Buckeyes have been victimized somewhat by their schedule, which had them playing the Spartans twice in their final three regular-season games; both were double-digit losses. Ohio State also has some bad non-conference losses on its resume. The biggest knock: They Buckeyes haven’t beaten many tournament field teams.

Still, a third potential meeting with the Spartans gives them a chance to mitigate that negative.

Why watch Wednesday’s games?

You shouldn’t. They’re dogs. The tournament starts in earnest Thursday.

Which team can help itself the most?

Iowa. A win over Michigan in the final game of the regular season ended a four-game losing streak that dropped the Hawkeyes to 20th in the AP Poll. They were ranked as high as third this season.

Iowa currently projects as a fifth or sixth seed, but a couple wins in the conference tournament could bump it up to the fourth line, giving the Hawkeyes a more favorable potential matchup in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

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Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.