The 2013 NCAA tournament gets underway with the "First Four" games on Tuesday, and we're already looking ahead to the Final Four. Conference tournament winners and other hot teams have made their cases down the stretch of the regular season, while others have made them by playing good basketball against a better team.
It's hard to predict what the conference tournaments will do to a team.
On one hand, the momentum teams accrue heading into the NCAA tournament is invaluable; it's an experience that only a handful of other teams in the nation can bank on when backed into a corner during March Madness.
However, we also know that conference tournament champions don't always make NCAA champions. For example, 2012 featured just one conference tournament winner (Louisville) in the Final Four. 2011, however, featured three (Butler, Kentucky and Connecticut)—all teams that were coming off of impressive displays during their respective league tournaments.
The propensity for upsets is always there in March, but the unpredictability of the moment makes for an interesting projection of how momentum will help teams move along in March. That in mind, here's a look at each region's best shot at the Final Four, based on matchups and how they gained momentum down the stretch of the regular season.
West Region: No. 2 Ohio State
Ohio State is a great place to start off this article, because it is the hottest team in the country right now—bar none.
The Buckeyes lost to Wisconsin in late February by 22 points. Since then, they've gone on an eight-game tear, beating four ranked teams from the AP Top 25 and two more (Illinois and Minnesota) that are going dancing.
The Big Ten title was inevitable for the Buckeyes with those kind of numbers, even if it was a gritty game against the Badgers.
Behind do-it-all guard Aaron Craft and leading scorer Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes have several brands of basketball they can employ. They can be deadly in the half-court while running offense, lethal in the fast break with their athletes and can even lock you down on defense (Wisconsin shot 38 percent on Sunday) when necessary.
Ohio State was a Final Four team in 2012, losing out to Kansas in the process. Jared Sullinger was the big name on that team, a reminder that this Ohio State squad's biggest crutch will be on the low block.
Even without Sully, Thad Matta's team has experience and a hot streak to ride heading into the Big Dance. As a No. 2 seed, it also has something to prove to the selection committee.
South Region: No. 5 VCU
If you've ever heard of the old saying, "Defense Wins Championships," then there's a good chance you'll do some film work on Virginia Commonwealth before allowing Kansas to bounce them in the South Region on your bracket.
The Rams lead the nation in steals per game (11.8) and turnover margin (plus-8.0), stats that aren't hard to fathom if you've seen their physical, lock-you-up style of defense that earned the squad an at-large bid after losing the Atlantic-10 title to Saint Louis.
Even with that loss, VCU should be considered a hot team. Throw out an A-10 loss to Saint Louis (lost by 14), and the Rams never dropped a game by more than nine points—and that includes close contests against full-strength Duke and Missouri back in November.
If you're worried about this team being able to score—don't be.
Treveon Graham, Juvonte Reddic and Troy Daniels all average at least 12 points per game for this team, which averages 78 points per game on the season. The Rams also shoot an impressive 35.6 percent from the three-point line—always a dangerous stat in March.
The South region is really a toss-up. There are a slew of good teams, but inconsistent play from big-name schools Kansas, Florida and Georgetown has the region's top three seeds all on upset watch and won't give us a clear indication of which team could emerge.
Don't forget about VCU, a talented team with more than a few marquee athletes and the defense to back up its No. 5 seed. With a win over Kansas (potentially the Sweet 16), the Final Four bandwagon should pick up Shaka Smart and his team.
East Region: No. 2 Miami (FL)
While the pro team of the region sits on a 23-game winning streak, the college team is getting ready to tackle the East region as a No. 2 seed—a snub if you respect the results of the conference tournaments more than the majority of the regular season.
In any event, top-seeded Indiana, No. 3 Marquette and No. 6 Butler are all potential road blocks to Miami reaching the Final Four, as is a gritty matchup between either No. 7 Illinois or No. 10 Colorado.
However, the Canes regained a little bit of their stride over the final four games of the season, imperative after they lost to Wake Forest, Duke and Georgia Tech in a span of three games. Miami bounced back to win the conference tournament and heads into March Madness with as much depth and scoring as anyone that will participate.
Led by electric guard Shane Larkin, fresh off a career-high 28-point game in the ACC tourney final, and Durand Scott, who had 32 of his own in the semis, Miami is a legitimate threat to take out anyone standing in its way.
As noted by Nicole Auerbach of USA Today, the Hurricanes are one of the most experienced, inexperienced teams in the field. That figures to be their only crutch since seniors Kenny Kadji, Scott and Reggie Johnson have plenty of in-game experience, but none playing together in the Big Dance.
Head coach Jim Larranaga—formerly of George Mason during its Final Four run—knows the ins and outs of this tournament and his team will be ready to play from the second round on. If Miami is motivated and scoring from the perimeter, it's an easy pick to head to Georgia unscathed.
Midwest Region: No. 1 Louisville
Louisville spanked Syracuse in the Big East title game and looked darn near unstoppable in the process after putting up 54 second-half points and forcing 19 Orange turnovers.
Top scorers Russ Smith and Peyton Siva lead the charge for Rick Pitino's bunch, but the Cardinals are getting production from Luke Hancock, Gorgui Dieng and even Montrezl Harrell—who had 20 points off the bench in the Big East win.
Mentioned in previous articles, the Midwest region is tough.
Saint Louis is looming in the Sweet 16, if it can get past Oklahoma State and/or Pac-12 tournament champ Oregon. On the lower half, Duke, Creighton, Michigan State and Memphis all are possibilities after that.
Still, when the Cardinals are unselfish and avoid the type of "hero ball" that plagued them in losses to Notre Dame and Syracuse earlier this season, they are a tough team to beat. Dieng almost had a triple-double (Nine points, nine rebounds, eight assists) in the Big East title game, and that kind of effort makes Louisville dangerous to every other team.
Suffocating on defense and electric on offense, the Cardinals are hot, have experience and are eager to avenge last year's Final Four loss to Kentucky. Right now, they are a safe bet to make it to Atlanta.
Then again, no one is safe.
Make sure to get a printable PDF bracket and follow along live with our tournament bracket during March Madness. Make your picks for the 2013 NCAA Tournament with the Bracket Challenge Game.
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