In a week, we'll post our first bracket for the 2013-14 season. That exercise will be educated guesswork subject to a whole bunch of variables -- such as coaching changes, NBA early entry candidates and transfers -- between now and November.
Today, we take one last look backward. It's our coda for the 2012-13 season and a reminder of how easily just a handful of games can impact the NCAA tournament. What we view with so much finality in March (and April) is actually anything but final without a near-endless series of events along the way.
Here's a look at nine key dates (featuring a dozen games) that proved to be the most significant stepping-stones in terms of shaping the NCAA tournament bracket and determining the eventual national champions, the Louisville Cardinals.
" Nov. 13, Wichita State Shockers at Virginia Commonwealth Rams
The Shockers were replacing four starters from a 27-6 team that had lost to VCU as a 5-seed in the 2012 NCAA tournament. The likelihood that Wichita State would win on the road at an even-better VCU in the second game of the season seemed remote. Yet the Shockers prevailed 53-51, giving us a very early indication of what would be possible just four months later.
" Jan. 19, Gonzaga Bulldogs at Butler Bulldogs
Who knew a crazy finish and loss at Hinkle Field House would propel the Zags to the most unlikely No. 1 seed since Saint Joseph's in 2004? Gonzaga would win 15 in a row following Roosevelt Jones' heroics for Butler, claiming a No. 1 seed in the West and igniting the usual big-versus-small-conference debates. Once again, even with the Zags losing in the third round, the NCAAs provided plenty of "little-guy moments."
" Jan. 23, Duke Blue Devils at Miami Hurricanes
The Hurricanes were a nice little story through the nonconference schedule, then hammered Duke (90-63) and North Carolina (87-61) on their way to ACC regular-season and tournament championships. It was by far the best season in school history, and it earned coach Jim Larranaga national coach of the year honors (and a near No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday).