By: Will Burchfield

Michigan State fans would rather forget about Middle Tennessee State forever. They’d rather banish the Blue Raiders from memory after last year’s crushing loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

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But they’d be better off rooting for them.

“Yeah, exactly,” said college basketball analyst Jerry Palm. “It might be a tough pill to swallow, but you’re a Blue Raiders fan — at least this week.”

Welcome to March.

The Spartans, given their position on the NCAA tournament bubble, want to see as many at-large bids in play as possible when the tournament field is selected on Sunday. If Middle Tennessee State (27-4) loses its conference tournament, foregoing automatic entry to the Big Dance, it could steal one of those at-large bids.

“There are very few of those teams this year, what we call ‘bid-stealers’ from the smaller conferences. The best of those I believe is Middle Tennessee in Conference USA, probably got the best collection of wins of the non-major teams this year,” Palm told the Jamie and Stoney Show on 971. The Ticket.

In non-conference play, the Blue Raiders beat Ole Miss on the road and took down Vanderbilt at home, crushing the Commodores by 25 points — “that’s a pretty solid win,” Palm said.

“So I think that Middle Tennessee could get that kind of consideration,” he went on. “Their problem is if they lose their conference tournament it’s another bad loss, and that would make four. That might be tough for the committee to swallow.”

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The Blue Raiders suffered losses this season to Tennessee State, Georgia State and UTEP. (They were also beaten by VCU, but the selection committee likely won’t hold that against them.)

Middle Tennessee State, which finished 17-1 in conference play, is the No. 1 seed in the Conference USA tournament and kicks things off on Thursday, against either No. 8 Western Kentucky or No. 9 UTSA.

“And then if they actually make the tournament,” Palm said, “you have to consider them to be a pretty dangerous team.”

Spartan fans wouldn’t disagree.

Michigan State (18-13) has business of its own to take care of on Thursday, of course. The No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, it will play either No. 12 Nebraska or No. 13 Penn State. A loss could have grim consequences.

“If they lose tomorrow, Michigan State is facing some historic negatives,” said Palm, who has the Spartans as a nine seed in his latest projection. “The worst record for a team to get into the tournament is 18-14 and that’s where Michigan State will be if they lose to Penn State or Nebraska — and that’s a (potential) loss to a team that’s a non-contender.

“If Michigan State picks up that 14th loss to one of the top teams in the league, I don’t think that’s such a big deal. But if they lose to Penn State or Nebraska and you add that kind of a loss at this time of year, I don’t know if they’re going to have enough to overcome 14 losses, some of which are pretty questionable including one at the end of the year.”

The Spartans fell to Illinois (18-13) last week and ended the regular season losing three of their past five games. A strong start in the conference tournament would go a long toward ensuring their 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.

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“I think they’d feel a whole lot better if they could win that first-round game,” Palm said.