The Big Dance is a sacred college basketball tradition that has defined the sport for decades, making a usually boring month of March into one of the most anticipated times of the entire year.
With the 68-team spread in lieu of just 64, every squad's chances at ending up in the coveted Final Four drop slightly. Programs now have an even tougher time finding that perfect team to secure a slot in the sport's biggest stage.
However, last season we once again had a Cinderella squad prove to us that no matter where a team starts out or what seed they might be, a championship run can always be in the cards.
VCU, a lowly No. 11 seed that played in the First Four round, ended up losing in the Final Four to Butler. On its way to Houston, Virginia Commonwealth took down classic powerhouses Georgetown, Purdue and even a star-studded Kansas squad to become the conversation of the entire tourney.
If that doesn't show the college basketball world that anything is possible, I don't know what will.
There will only be four squads allowed into New Orleans this postseason. With teams such as Butler and VCU always stealing away one or two of those slots, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for top programs to secure a position in the Final Four.
We will take a look at the top seven squads who actually have all the potential to make it into the sport's most acclaimed level of the Big Dance, possibly making their Final Four dreams become reality.
For your printable bracket for the 2012 NCAA tournament, click here
While the Cardinals started off the year with such promise, losing only to Kentucky in non-conference play, Louisville's collapse during Big East competition was despairing to watch. Two close losses to Georgetown and Notre Dame began the fall, but after Providence crushed the Cards, things truly got out of hand.
After losing to Syracuse twice, Marquette once, and Cincinnati and USF also taking home wins, Rick Pitino and Company seemed out of any race for a run at the title.
Then, every single analyst out there took heed of why we all call college basketball's mastermind a March Madness coach.
Coming into the Big East tournament as the No. 7 seed, the Cardinals destroyed Seton Hall, Marquette and Notre Dame en route to the championship game. In a low-scoring, defensive struggle against Cincinnati, the Cards were able to sneak out of Madison Square Garden with a six-point victory.
Led by the impressive play of junior guard Peyton Siva and senior guard Kyle Kuric, Louisville is back and will be better than ever this Big Dance. While their placement is at No. 4, the Cardinals will once again make their their presence known around the country.
The Tar Heels are the classic college basketball squad poised to make it deep into the tourney. Led by the prolific play of superstar sophomore forward Harrison Barnes as well as the experience of senior forward Tyler Zeller, UNC making its way into the Final Four would be no surprise.
Under legendary coach Roy Williams, North Carolina has been quite successful. Taking home the conference regular-season title with a fantastic finish at Duke, the Tar Heels were gunning to win the ACC tournament and hold onto one of the top seeds in the Big Dance by taking down Florida State.
While the Tar Heels have proven my predictions of their strength to be wrong so far, my interest peaked with how they would perform against FSU in the ACC tournament final. Combined with a 33-point loss in Tallahassee that still haunts the Tar Heels, their second stumble against Florida State may have raised concerns for the selection committee.
That point aside, UNC is still one of the best teams in the nation. Its experience, talent and overall aura lead me to believe that it have more than enough potential to make a run at New Orleans.
Despite what many may say about the Jayhawks, you must understand that Kansas is basketball.
While these young men might have the weight of their entire state on their shoulders, each and every one of them has proven that it's more of a boost to their skills than a limitation.
The unfortunate loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semifinals that prevented a Kansas-Missouri rematch was somewhat depressing, but you still can't overlook this Jayhawks team. Their claim on a No. 1 seed was a lost cause after their conference tournament, but one must consider that the Jayhawks are supported by possibly the best player in the nation in junior forward Thomas Robinson.
There is value enough in that sentence alone to push Kansas through to the Final Four.
If that doesn't convince you, there is also highly esteemed coach Bill Self, senior guard Tyshawn Taylor and the underrated junior post man Jeff Withey. Every one of these puzzles pieces together compose one of the best all-around squads in the country.
To put it another way, I would be extremely surprised if the Jayhawks didn't make a deep Final Four run.
Ending the regular season with a school-record 30 wins and a solid shot at claiming the top overall seed in the Big Dance, the Orange truly showed themselves to be a threat over the course of the entire year.
The fall at Notre Dame was considered to be more or less a fluke that Syracuse wouldn't likely repeat in the future. Unfortunately, a little bad luck and one Big East semifinal later, and 'Cuse was sitting with another loss at the hands of Cincinnati.
Most people see this stumble as a glance at the Orange's vulnerability, but I personally view it as a learning opportunity for a team that didn't think it had any weaknesses. As they enter the Dance, further understanding the holes in their acclaimed zone is extremely important as well as many fallouts that have caused both losses this season.
This advantage will lead to stronger play and a better overall performance by the Orange. Don't be surprised when head coach Jim Boeheim leads this powerful squad all the way to New Orleans. They'll depend on the leadership of Kris Joseph and the shooting of Dion Waiters due to the absence of Fab Melo for eligibility reasons (per ESPN).
The Spartans took a year that started so badly and transformed it into one of their best to date.
Their competition in the Big Ten turned out to be some of the best in the nation, ranging from Ohio State to Purdue. Each opponent had their hands more than full with MSU, however, allowing me to conclude that they are truly one of the top squads in the sport.
Even with some bad losses to Northwestern, Illinois and Michigan, head coach Tom Izzo runs this team like a well-oiled machine. Senior forward Draymond Green has shown his continuing worth with every passing game as the general on the court for younger players such as sophomore guard Keith Appling.
Taking home the Big Ten tournament title was a gigantic step in the right direction, especially since it was against Michigan State's ever-powerful rival, Ohio State. I wouldn't be surprised if that win pushes this team into overdrive for the entire Big Dance.
A legendary program with a ton to prove this postseason, watch out for MSU to make a splash. Its Final Four dreams are more than just possible—they're probable, considering how much depth this squad owns.
Considered the top Big 12 surprise squad, Missouri has really come into its own over the course of this season. The Tigers were perfect until Kansas State knocked them off in Manhattan, falling again later to the Wildcats, the Cowboys and the Jayhawks in overtime.
Mizzou not only has the most talented lineup in the country but it also has the most experience. With senior guard Marcus Denmon leading the charge, the Tigers also start a senior forward in Ricardo Ratliffe, another senior guard with Kim English and top off it off with junior guard Michael Dixon.
With some big-time wins over Baylor, Kansas and Notre Dame, the Tigers have shown their spunk. Taking home their second-ever Big 12 tournament title with a victory over Baylor, Missouri ended its last season with its former conference in the most perfect possible way.
With a young, determined coach in Frank Haith and a healthy team, this Tigers squad is one of the best in the nation, hands down. Many critics believe they rely too heavily on shooting from beyond the arc, but experience, in my opinion, is the most important factor to overcome adversity—and Mizzou owns a ton of it.
When comparing Syracuse with Kentucky, one can find many similarities. Both ended the year with only two losses and play in strong power conferences, while outperforming every expectation anybody had for them coming into the season.
Their largest differences, however, are what make UK so powerful.
While 'Cuse might have the advantage when it comes to experience, the Wildcats easily own the talent side of the argument. With whom many consider to be the top player in the nation in Anthony Davis, Kentucky has proven its worth over the course of the year. Their singular regular-season loss to Indiana by a buzzer-beater and perfect regular-season conference record provide extremely compelling evidence for a Final Four run.
Under the magnificent coaching of John Calipari, this team seems almost unbeatable. The fall to Vanderbilt in the conference tournament championship seems disturbing enough, but as a young squad, it creates a standard of how not to perform come the Big Dance.
UK is my favorite squad to hit up New Orleans this postseason. The Wildcats' profile this year has been more than impressive, leading me to support their placement as the overall top seed in the tournament.