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The brackets are out.

The march to the Glendale Final Four is about to tip off.

Let’s take a look:

SEEDS: Arizona No. 2 in West, Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina, Gonzaga No. 1s

Repeat watch

As the tournament’s top overall seed, Villanova (31-3) is a favorite to repeat as national champs, but keep this in mind: Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only two teams have pulled this off: Duke and Florida.

Behind Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley, the Blue Devils cut down the nets in both 1991 and 1992, while Al Horford and Joakim Noah helped the Gators do so in 2006 and 2007.

“Our confidence was elevated after that first championship,” said Hurley, who just finished his second season as coach at Arizona State. “Throughout the whole year, we took everyone’s best shot. Teams were usually motivated to play us anyway, but it was at a different level. Every time we played on the road, the crowd was amped up for us. We weren’t a real deep team, we had a fairly tight rotation, so it was exhausting going through that. But we were excited once we were getting closer to the ACC Tournament and we knew everything was right in front of us again.”

An advantage for Villanova: Experience. Coach Jay Wright starts three seniors, including All-America guard Josh Hart, a redshirt sophomore and a true sophomore. They can handle repeat pressure.

WIN $1,000 IN PRIZES: NCAA Tournament bracket contest

Final Four pressure

Much will be made this month of Arizona’s Sean Miller and Gonzaga’s Mark Few, two of the nation’s top coaches who never have reached the Final Four. With both planted in the West Regional – Gonzaga as the top seed, Arizona as No. 2 – this could be the year one breaks through.

How difficult is it to get there? San Diego State’s Steve Fisher has been to three Final Fours, while Purdue’s Matt Painter and Creighton’s Greg McDermott still chase their first. I asked each how much the Final Four weighs on a coach.

Fisher: “It’s impossible to get there. And yet, you get some guys who have gone a dozen times. And then you have guys who have had great, great coaching careers who never made it to a Final Four. The best team doesn’t always win. In the NBA, there’s a little more reliability. Usually the better team is going to win because it’s four out of seven. But that’s what makes this so exciting. That’s why so many people can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. Who’s going to surprise? Who might sneak in? And who might play well when the time to play well is just perfect for them?”

Painter: “There’s a lot of variables that go into it. There just is. From injuries to seeding to where you’re playing to the officials. Foul trouble. Guys have teams that are good enough to get there, but they really don’t get that break at the end, whether it’s a call or somebody gets injured. And sometimes styles just don’t work. Sometimes a No. 1 seed plays an 8 in the second round and you think, ‘Man, there’s no difference in these teams.’ On a neutral court, there can be a lot of things that can even things up.”

McDermott: “My goal has always been to get our team into the NCAA Tournament, make sure we’re prepared when we get there and then let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully, you can get on one of those two-week runs and make the Final Four, but when my coaching career ends, if I don’t make the Final Four, I won’t feel like I have had an empty career.”

MORE: Countdown to Arizona’s Final Four

The favorites

The title favorites per VegasInsider.com:

Duke, 6/1

North Carolina, 13/2

Kansas, 17/2

Kentucky, 17/2

Villanova, 17/2

Arizona, 10/1

Gonzaga, 10/1

UCLA, 12/1

Louisville, 14/1

Oregon, 25/1

20 YEARS LATER: An Arizona Wildcats championship to remember


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The dark horses

Outside of the favorites, someone unexpected will get hot. It happens nearly every March. I asked ESPN analyst Jay Bilas for three teams seeded fifth or higher capable of making a Final Four run:

No. 10 Wichita State. “Their resume says they should be a double-digit seed, but that is not a double-digit seed. That is a five seed. They’re very good. Their losses came early on when they were young and trying to figure it out – they figured it out.”

No. 10 Oklahoma State. “They’re great offensively. They’re not as good defensively, but they’ve gotten better. They were a heavy-pressure team earlier but they’re more containment now. They have really good guards. Jawun Evans is like a poor man’s Chris Paul. He’s a really talented player.”

No. 6 Cincinnati. “They’re a little bit different. They can really score this year. They’re still really good defensively and they can still rebound, but they can score at all five positions, which has not been the norm for them.”

BOIVIN: Look out, Arizona Wildcats poised for Final Four run

Bracket assistance

The UCLA danger. The Bruins are as good as anyone offensively, but keep this in mind: Since 2002, only three Final Four teams (2003 Texas, 2003 Marquette and 2011 VCU) have finished the season ranked worse than 50th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Entering the tournament, UCLA ranks 78th.

Ignore conference tournaments. Over the past three years, only four of the 12 Final Four teams won their conference tournaments. Last year, Syracuse lost five of six entering the tournament and then somehow ripped off four in a row to reach the Final Four, so the “peaking at the right time” factor often is misleading. Be prepared this week for such talk surrounding Michigan. The Wolverines won the Big Ten tournament. They also went 10-8 in a conference that wasn’t very good.

Don’t lock onto the higher seeds. Over the past six years, six teams seeded seventh or higher played in the Final Four. This doesn’t mean to ride a Cinderella team all the way to Glendale, but an experienced team like No. 8 Wisconsin, despite its late-season issues, could be dangerous.

FAMILIAR FACES: See the Arizonans in the NCAA Tournament

My Final Four

Midwest: Purdue. Caleb Swanigan is America’s best post player, and the Boilermakers – shooting 40.6 percent from 3-point range – surround him with shooters.

South: North Carolina. Justin Jackson played at an All-America level for most of the season, and he has tons of help in the post.

East: Duke. The Blue Devils have experienced their share of adversity (early season injuries, Grayson Allen’s kicking, Coach K’s leave of absence), but they’ve always had the best talent.

West: Arizona. Can a coach will a team to the Final Four? Look closely, because that’s what’s going down in Tucson. Given their personnel issues, the Wildcats have no business entering this tournament at 30-4, yet here they are, mostly because Miller wouldn’t tolerate anything less.

Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected]. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller


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