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Duke, Zags, Gators have clear shot at March Madness glory

The 2012-13 NCAA basketball season has been one with many twists and turns. There has been plenty of thrill and shock since the beginning of play in October, but nothing will compare to the madness that is set to commence in a week’s time.

Yes, folks, it’s that glorious time of the year again: March Madness.

The tournament is a cause for excitement every year, but the parity that exists among Division I ranks leaves a general feeling among fans and experts that this year will be one of the best tournaments in quite some time. This parity has been evident by all year long — especially in the last month — as the top 10 gets shuffled around on a weekly basis, due to both ranked and unranked upsets.

Selection Sunday is looming, and teams are entering what will be an entertaining stretch run; but, more than anything, it will be a showcase of why they deserve to have a spot in the tournament. There is a lot to be sorted out, in terms of lower seeds in the tournament over the coming weeks, but there are four teams that have separated from the pack, in terms of top seeds. Of course the four top seeds will not be determined until the final week of the season, but here are those predicted to top each region:

Indiana University- The Hoosiers are in line to take the number one overall seed in the tournament and top the Midwest region. After enduring a last minute loss to Illinois on Feb. 7, the Hoosiers have re-established themselves with victories over seeded foes Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. The Hoosiers will continue to ride the shoulders of star forwards Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo on their quest to a title, but key players, including guards Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford, are players to keep an eye on as well.

Duke University- It seems as though the Blue Devils get their name in the conversation of top tournament seeds every year, with this year being no different. Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch has run through the rigorous ACC ranks once again this year and come out clean on the other side. They had one embarrassing loss at the hands of Miami (FL) where they were run out of the gym, but past that the Blue Devils are having a typical Duke season. With Miami being knocked off last week, Duke can now settle back into the No. 1 seed in the East region.

Gonzaga University- The Zags are the surprise of this year’s season and upcoming tournament. Led by the rising star power of center Kelly Olynk and the superior coaching of longtime head coach Mark Few, Gonzaga is riding a 10-game winning streak over the last month. They face a test this week against Brigham Young University, but it’s conceivable that the Zags could run the table through the West Coast Conference tournament and steal the automatic bid from other teams en route to their No. 1 seed in the West region.

University of Florida- The Gators have inherited the No. 1 seed from Miami, Fla., after the Hurricanes were upset by Wake Forest on Saturday. The Gators were the talk of the town early in the season — people even suggested they could beat a lowly NBA team — but they, too, suffered a huge setback with an 80-69 loss to unranked Arkansas. Head coach Billy Donovan has been in this position before and has a knack for building champions, but the Gators will need to maneuver through a tough remaining schedule against SEC foes to tighten their grip on the top seed in the South region.

While these are just a few teams that are pulling away from the pack at the moment, they could fall right back down to earth at any given moment. Teams including Miami, Michigan, Michigan State and Kansas, are all lurking on the horizon and waiting for their opportunity to limb back into contention for a top seed.

While these top teams all are favored to advance with ease through the tournament and have the inside track to a title, there are lower seeded teams that have potential to make a push. One team that is always worth watching is the Butler Bulldogs. Head coach Brad Stevens’ club is projected as a No. 3 or No. 4 seed, but his coaching experience in tournament play and the presence of veteran players like Andrew Smith make the Bulldogs a force to be reckoned with at the big dance. Another team to watch is the Missouri Tigers. It has been an up-and-down season for the Tigers, but they have the same makeup as Butler. They have some seasoned veterans in guard Phil Pressey and center Alex Oriakhi, who transferred this year from the 2012 champion Connecticut Huskies. More importantly, Frank Haith is still at the helm for the Tigers, and he is another coach who knows what it takes to win in March. The road will be harder for the Tigers as they will likely land a double-digit seed, but stranger things have happened this time of year.

Even after all the analysis and predictions, there is really no telling where things will stand with so many dominoes left to fall. While nothing is a sure thing when it comes to college basketball in March, fans can always be assured that the road to the title will be a ride worth watching every step of the way.