Unfortunately, it doesn't always work out that way in the Big Ten. The selection committee will have their work all but finished by the time the championship game tips off, and the big announcement will be just hours away. What we end up with is a game that is usually pretty meaningless for the participants, and anti-climactic for the fans.
Many teams already know where they are headed in March, and don't play with that same sense of urgency that they would have even a week previously.
At the same time, there are always a couple of teams playing for their NCAA Tournament lives. While Indiana certainly didn't back up the point I am about to make with their early exit last season, teams with something to play for almost always have an advantage in conference tournaments.
Of course, that means we have to pay attention to is Michigan. The Wolverines are likely in the NCAA Tournament at the moment, but the bubble is certainly cloudy at the moment. A loss to Minnesota would definitely leave the selection committee with a bad taste in their mouths, and could be dangerous.
Of course, if Tommy Amaker could pick one team to play in the first round, it might be the Golden Gophers. The Wolverines have blown out Minnesota twice this season, most recently a 72-50 shellacking on February 15 in Ann Arbor.
The Wolverines would then play Iowa, a team that has dominated at home, but has looked very beatable away from Carver-Hawkeye. While the Wolverines seem like a program that has found a way to lose important games in recent years, Michigan should win this one handily and end up as the Big Ten's 7th team in the field of 64.
Another storyline to follow this weekend will be the play of Big Ten regular season champion Ohio State, which still has a chance at a #1 seed.
Nobody really thinks of the Buckeyes as the powerhouse type of team that normally earns a top seed, perhaps because they play team-oriented ball and don't have much star power at all. But Thad Matta's squad is 23-4, and was the outright winner of the top conference in the country. That compares favorably with Memphis' 27-3 record in the watered down C-USA.
The Buckeyes probably have to win the entire tournament to earn that number one seed, and they certainly don't have an easy road in front of them. Ohio State had to work hard for most of its wins this season, and this is one conference tournament that is completely up for grabs.
And what about the Spartans?
Tom Izzo hasn't found much success in the conference tourney in recent years, perhaps for the reasons mentioned above. The Spartans aren't in any danger of missing the tourney and could likely use an extended break to get healthy, but should have little trouble with Purdue in the first round nonetheless.
The second round matchup against Illinois is much more intriguing, as the Spartans would have a chance to avenge that regular season sweep. Michigan State is certainly capable of beating the Illini, but will have to figure out a way to score in the halfcourt.
Where tradition would tell you that Illinois is the run and gun team and Michigan State would be more comfortable in a slow-it-down style game, those roles have reversed this season. Bruce Weber has put the reigns on Dee Brown's one man fast break, and relied on stellar halfcourt "D" to win games. Michigan State lacks the usual defensive toughness of a Tom Izzo squad, and is much more comfortable in the open court setting.
So why could the Spartans only muster a .500 Big Ten record despite perhaps the three most talented players in the conference? One could point to the unbalanced schedule, the lack of bench production, or Izzo's inability to find a big man to play "enforcer" next to Davis. But one look through The Big Ten Wonk's (http://bigtenwonk.blogspot.com/) tempo-free State Page should tell you all you need to know.
This Michigan State squad was one of the most dangerous teams in the conference in terms of scoring (3rd in offensive efficiency), but gave up this advantage in a variety of ways. The Spartans were below average on defense (7th in defensive efficiency), allowed opponents to shoot a league-worst 39% on 3-pointers, and forced the fewest turnovers of anybody in the Big Ten.
And if you want one final stat that tells the real story, look no further than the Big Ten Wonk's tempo statistic. The Spartans played at just the 7th fastest pace in the conference this season, meaning their opponents were successful in slowing the game down and keeping the Spartan wings out of the open court.
If Tom Izzo and crew want to beat Illinois, win the Big Ten Tournament or find success in the NCAA's, they will have to find a way to play at their pace. In a fast break-dominated style of game, Michigan State has the firepower to stick with anybody.