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NCAA Tournament Sweet 16: 4 x 4, building to an exciting conclusion

Four is the trending number heading into this week's Sweet 16 round of the NCAA basketball tournament.

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Ohio State's Lenzelle Smith, Jr. passes the ball during basketball practice in Boston, Wednesday, March 21. Ohio State is scheduled to play Cincinnati in an NCAA tournament East Regional semifinal college basketball game on Thursday.

Elise Amendola/AP

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When March comes around each year, almost every college basketball player starts thinking about the NCAA Final Four. But the number four will be the focus of the national tournament's Sweet 16 round, starting Thursday night.

There are four teams from the Big Ten Conference - Michigan State, Ohio State, Indiana, and Wisconsin - still competing in the men's basketball national championship tournament.

The Spartans and Buckeyes battled for league supremacy throughout the season, with Michigan State and Ohio State tying for the regular season conference title. Michigan State beat Ohio State for the conference tournament championship.

The Hoosiers, under coach Tom Crean, have returned to the ranks of the Midwest basketball elite after four years without reaching the NCAA tournament. Indiana is second in the nation in made three-point field goal percentage, helping to keep them alive in the tourney. And Wisconsin continues its steady, unheralded play with size and the nation's best scoring defense.

Four teams in the Sweet 16 come from the state of Ohio - Ohio, Ohio State, Cincinnati, and Xavier. Cincinnati will play Ohio State in one NCAA East Region semifinal Thursday night in Boston. 50 years ago, in 1962, the Bearcats beat the Buckeyes for the national championship for the second consecutive year.

“The philosophy we had was to hold the basketball until you could get a high-percentage shot,” Tony Yates, a player on that 1962 title team who later coached UC, told the New York Times. “We were a disciplined group. We played defense and we rebounded. That’s the way we played all the time.”

This season, Xavier, also located in Cincinnati, played the Bearcats in a game that ended in an on-court brawl. The two schools could meet again in the national championship game if they each win three more games. Ohio, out of the Mid-American Conference, has reached the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams.

There are four teams from the Big East Conference - Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, and Syracuse - that are still dancing. The Orangemen have spent time in the No. 1 spot in national polls this season, having ripped off 20 straight wins to start the year. The Cardinals have been hot and cold this season, but have come on at the right time, winning the Big East conference tournament. Marquette, much like their steady Dairy State basketball brethren at Wisconsin, won 14 games in the Big East regular season and are two wins away from the Final Four, where they haven't been since 2003.

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Thirteen of the 16 schools left in the NCAA tournament enjoy a championship pedigree, having won at least one NCAA basketball championship, including Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina. The NCAA Sweet 16 gets under way Thursday evening at 7 p.m. ET, with games televised on both CBS and TBS.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the number of 2012 NCAA Sweet 16 schools that had previously won national championships.]

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