NCAA Basketball Championship Week Primer: Who To Watch, Root For And More

The madness before the madness is officially upon us with the start of conference tournaments. Mike Rutherford has your guide to everything you should be watching for during NCAA basketball's Championship Week.

My disdain for the BCS -- or, more accurately, college football's complete and utter lack of a postseason that caters to the basic principles of sport -- has reached that most grotesque of levels where I'm unable to joke about it. It's gotten to the point where I can no longer say, with any degree of honesty, that I am a college football fan. I love the game, love the tradition, love waking up early on fall Saturdays for College Gameday, but because of the system in place I can't go above classifying myself as anything more than a fan of a team.

In college football, almost 50 percent of the games are completely meaningless in terms of their relation to who gets to lay claim to the title of national champion. To me, that's maddening, and it's why when my team's season is done, I'm done.

The antithesis of this began in college hoops on Monday night when first round action in the Big South Conference Tournament tipped off. It will continue Tuesday night when the Horizon League gets its tournament under way, and will continue all the way until April 2, when an unquestioned champion is crowned.

From here on out, every single game will have some direct influence on who gets to cut down the nets in five weeks.

As I said at the very beginning of the year, obtaining the sport's top prize is extremely unlikely for the vast majority of the 346 teams competing in Division I, but thank God it's not impossible. Thank God the bottom-tier RPI school that won its conference tournament gets the chance to prove itself on the sport's biggest stage, and not inside a quarter-full stadium against a team that doesn't really want to be there, in a game that, for all intents and purposes, has absolutely zero significance. Thank God when VCU beat USC in the first round a year ago that wasn't how their season ended.

Championship Week(s) is the fun before the fun. If filet mignon is the main course here, then char-grilled lobster tails are the appetizer. Starting Tuesday night, we're treated to 13 days of nothing but dream-fulfilling, career-ending, win-or-turn-in-your-jersey conference tournament action. All the elements that draw casual fans so completely into the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament are inherent in each and every one of the 30 conference tournaments that will take place over the course of the next two weeks.

Quite simply, it's high drama that you can't find anywhere else in sports.

Mid and low-major D-I basketball is an acquired taste, and it's one that's especially difficult to attain when the team you love and follow plays in a conference like the Big East. So while I'm fully aware that some of you likely aren't interested in any of what you're about to read, allow me to say this: I don't care. This is my favorite time of the year, I'm currently smiling as I type, and this post is going to happen whether you like it or not.

For the rest of you, it's time to get briefed for Championship Week. It's a time primarily for the little guy, so focus here excludes the big six and four mini-major (A-10, WAC, MWC, C-USA) conferences.

COMPLETE CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT DATES AND LOCATIONS

It's the most logical, if not exciting, jumping off point. Let's go ahead and include the big boys in this one just because we can.

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2012 Overview

Parity was the theme of 2011's Championship Week, as for the first time in a decade and just the second time in the past 21 years, there were zero teams in the country that finished the regular season with a perfect conference record. The same can't be said a year later, as the bulk of conferences seem to be extremely strong at the top while relatively thin in the belly. The result is that there might not be the same early round madness, but the semifinal and championship games figure to be extremely competitive. Since those are the only games the bulk of the nation gets to say anyway, it's probably just as well.

12 SQUADS FOR THE BUBBLE BOYS TO PULL FOR

If you're a major conference fan still with us, I'll humor you.

The crop of mid-major squads poised to head to the dance regardless of league tourney performance is bulkier than it has been in recent years, which isn't great news for middling squads in BCS conferences. There will be several tournaments over the next couple of weeks where the favorite or favorites going down will give a conference a bid it wouldn't have had otherwise.

Rapidly aging fans of teams that haven't done enough yet to warrant "lock" status should adopt these squads as their own for the next couple of weeks.

1. Murray State (Ohio Valley)

The once-beaten and ninth-ranked Racers are the ultimate mid-major lock. The good news for the bubble boys is that the altered OVC Tournament format gives them an automatic pass into the semis, meaning they'll only have two opportunities (at the most) to be upset.

2. Wichita State (Missouri Valley)

The Valley champs are ranked in the top 15 of both polls and are a legitimate threat to crash the Final Four.

3. Creighton (Missouri Valley)

The other ranked team out of the MVC is every bit as much of a lock to earn an at-large bid should it falter at some point during Arch Madness. Though it looked early on as if the Missouri Valley could be a threat to send three or four teams to the dance, the postseason prospects of the league members are quite clear at the moment: Creighton and Wichita State are in, everybody else is out. The top two seeds are both going to have to stumble for someone to steal a bid.

4. Gonzaga (West Coast)

The Meryl Streep of this list. They're here again because they're in again.

5. Saint Mary's (West Coast)

If Meryl Streep had a very slightly less talented sister, then I would reference her here. I don't believe she does. If I'm wrong, I apologize to both her and this space for the wasted opportunity.

6. BYU (West Coast)

The Cougars are as squarely on the bubble as anyone as they enter postseason play with just one top 50 RPI win. Still, because they don't have any particularly egregious losses either, a win over Gonzaga in the semifinals should probably be enough to have them feeling safe two Sundays from now.

7. VCU (Colonial)

Last season's most debated at-large inclusion could be thrust into a similar situation if it doesn't win the CAA Tournament from the two spot. The Rams ended the season on a 14-1 tear, but their computer numbers don't match up well with a lot of their fellow bubble buddies.

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8. Drexel (Colonial)

Drexel's at-large chances are actually slimmer than VCU's despite the fact that the Dragons won the CAA outright, but if they do fall in the conference tournament, their sparkling 25-5 record and (as of right now) 17-game winning streak will certainly warrant consideration.

9. George Mason (Colonial)

The Patriots are almost certainly on the outside looking in, but fans of Texas or Oregon may want to root for them to go down in the quarters or semis just in case.

10. Long Beach State (Big West)

The Beach is poised to run the table in the Big West and shouldn't have much of an issue winning a pair of games to capture the league title. That said, should they falter during Championship Week, the fact that they played easily the toughest non-conference schedule in the country is going to work strongly in their favor. So long as they take care of business in their final three regular season games, I'll be surprised if LBSU isn't in the field of 68 regardless of how their fair in the conference tourney.

11. Harvard (Ivy League)

Suddenly, Harvard is dead-locked with Pennsylvania in the 14-game tournament. The two split their season series, which means a tie could result in a one-game playoff, the same scenario which saw the Crimson beaten at the buzzer by Princeton a season ago. Many thought Harvard still deserved a spot last year, and their resume then wasn't as strong as this team's will end up being.

12. Oral Roberts (Summit)

They have a 26-5 and a respectable RPI (41), which will give them a shot should they lose to South Dakota State in the Summit League title game. Any other losing scenario and they're probably toast.

13. Middle Tennessee (Sun Belt)

An upset loss to Western Kentucky over the weekend was probably a death blow to their at-large chances, but some Bracketologists (licensed and unlicensed) are still saying that there's still a shot. It would likely have to be the perfect combination of mid-major favorites holding serve and high major bubble teams losing early (and big), but it's still a shot.

NINE OTHER HEAVY FAVORITES

These teams may be heading into the postseason as runaway tournament favorites after dominating their league's regular season, but an upset will relegate each of them to the NIT.

1. Belmont (Atlantic Sun)

It wasn't the A-Sun tour of dominance that many expected from a Bruin team that spent some time in the national rankings at the beginning of the season, but they still won the conference by multiple games. The only thing standing between Belmont and another trip to the NCAA Tournament appears to be the fact that league runner-up Mercer is also the host of the conference tournament.

2. Iona (MAAC)

The greatest amateur show in New York leads the nation in scoring (83.4 ppg) and assists per game (19.5 apg), and ranks second in field goal percentage (50.2%). Scott Machado, MoMo Jones and Mike Glover would start for just about anybody in the country. The fact that they lost three times in the MAAC is more surprising than them winning the league by two games.

3. Davidson (Southern)

A pair of February losses squandered the slim shot the Wildcats had at an at-large bid, but Davidson's win over Kansas in Kansas City is still the most impressive win any team in this post can lay claim to. They won the SoCon by a full four games and will be a large favorite in Asheville this week.

4. UNC-Asheville (Big South)

The Bulldogs won the Big South by four full games over second place Coastal Carolina and will have homecourt advantage throughout the conference tournament, starting tomorrow night.

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5. Akron (Mid-American)

Sunday's blowout loss at Ohio still leaves the Zips (12-2) with a full two-game lead over the Bobcats and Buffalo, the only two conference foes to defeat them this season. A 14-2 season would be an extremely impressive feat in a conference where parity ordinarily reigns supreme.

6. UT-Arlington (Southland)

The Mavericks had the nation's second-longest winning streak snapped on BracketBusters Saturday at Weber State, but they're still unbeaten in Southland play and locked up the second conference title in program history last week.

7. Valparaiso (Horizon)

One of the better stories in college basketball this season is Bryce Drew (yes, that Bryce Drew) taking over at Valpo for his cancer-ridden father and leading the Crusaders to a surprising regular season title in the Horizon League. They now sit just two wins away from a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

8. Mississippi Valley State (SWAC)

The Delta Devils were a near imperfect 1-11 in non-conference play, but have not tasted defeat in 2012. They'll carry a perfect 17-0 league mark into Thursday night's regular season finale at Arkansas Pine-Bluff.

9. Bucknell (Patriot)

Bucknell had won 12 straight before a surprising pair of back-to-back losses in mid-February. One of those defeats came at home to Lehigh, the team which would appear to be their top competition for the Patriot League's auto-bid.

15 PLAYERS WHO WILL BE HEARD FROM

1. Doug McDermott (Creighton/Missouri Valley)

You should have heard of him by now, but if you haven't, you're about to. The 6-foot-7 McDermott is the only non-guard to rank among the nation's 10 leading scorers, currently placing third at 23.1 ppg. His team's shaky finish cost him any outside shot he had at national player of the year, but McDermott will still likely wind up being a first team All-American.

2. Damian Lillard (Weber State/Big Sky)

The electric Lillard has led the nation in scoring for most of the season, but more importantly he's guided Weber to a 24-5 overall record and a 14-1 mark in league play. Currently ranking second in the country in scoring at 24.7 ppg, the future Big Sky Player of the Year is also averaging 4.1 assists and 5.1 rebounds a night.

3. Nate Wolters (South Dakota State/Summit League)

Wolters may have the ball in his hands more than any other player in college basketball. If the season ended today, he would be just the fourth player in Division-I history to average better than 20 points, six assists and five rebounds. The country will fall in love with him and the Jackrabbits if they're able to claim the Summit title.

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4. Isaiah Canaan (Murray State/Ohio Valley)

The biggest reason for the Racers' dream season, Canaan is averaging a team-best 19.4 ppg and is just 11 made three-pointers away from setting the single-season school record. His average of 3.2 made treys a game is the seventh-best mark in the country.

5. Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary's/West Coast)

The junior guard is the heart and soul of a Saint Mary's team that just ended Gonzaga's run of 12 straight WCC regular season titles. The native of Australia leads the team in both scoring (15.4 ppg) and assists (6.5 apg).

6. Casper Ware (Long Beach State/Big West)

The guy who's generally the smallest on the court at 5-10, is also at the center of "The Greatest Show on Surf." Ware is averaging a career-best 17.3 ppg in his senior season, and has thrived in the national spotlight. He dropped 28 in a huge upset of then-No. 9 Pittsburgh, 26 at San Diego State, 29 at North Carolina and 21 in a nationally televised slugfest at Creighton. His final moment in the sun starts with next week's Big West Tournament.

7. Scott Machado (Iona/MAAC)

It seems unfair to pick just one member of the Iona trio (Machado, backcourt mate MoMo Jones and forward Mike Glover), but if pressed I think you have to go with the nation's leader in assists. Machado makes the fast-pace Gaels go and is the ever-rare triple-double threat from the guard position. There aren't many teams in the country more fun to watch than the Gaels, and their senior floor general is the biggest reason why.

8. LaMarcus Reed (UT-Arlington/Southland)

The explosive Reed is averaging better than 17 points and shooting better than 40 percent from beyond the arc for the unbeaten Southland champs. Remember what he did to Thomas Robinson last season.

9. Zack Rosen (Pennsylvania/Ivy League)

Rosen might be the hottest name in mid-major basketball after scoring Penn's final nine points -- including the winning free throws with 23.2 seconds left -- in an upset of Ivy League frontrunner Harvard, 55-54. The senior guard is averaging a team-best 18.5 ppg for the Quakers, who are now even with the Crimson in the loss column with just three league games to play.

10. C.J. McCollum (Lehigh/Patriot)

McCollum, who entered the season as the nation's leading returning scorer, became the third player in Patriot League history to win the league's Player of the Year award twice when he took the honor earlier this week. The junior, who also won the award as a freshman, leads the league in scoring and is tied for fifth in the nation at 21.7 points per game. He's third in school history with 1,959 career points.

11.Torrey Craig (USC Upstate/Atlantic Sun)

Craig, the clear favorite for Atlantic Sun player of the year, leads the league in scoring (17.1) and is second in rebounding (7.9). In conference games, he is No. 1 in both categories.

12. Ryan Pearson (George Mason/Colonial)

The likely CAA Player of the Year has 14 double-doubles in 31 games this season. He's also left-handed. You're welcome for the free scouting report, Division-I.

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13. Kyle O'Quinn (Norfolk State/MEAC)

The big man is averaging 16.2 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game over his last two seasons, and has started to attract the attention of pro scouts.

14. Julian Boyd (Long Island/Northeast)

The junior forward recently became the first Blackbird in 22 years to eclipse the 20-rebound mark in a game when he went for 21 points and 20 boards in a win over Fairleigh Dickinson. Boyd is the leading scorer (17.3) and rebounder (9.7) for the NEC leaders. In 2009 he was diagnosed with noncompaction cardiomyopathy, which means the blood was not circulating properly in his heart. He's made a remarkable return to basketball after sitting that entire 2009-10 season out.

15. Matt Dickey (UNC Asheville/Big Sky)

The recently named Big South Player of the Year helped the Bulldogs win the regular season championship by finishing fourth in the conference in scoring at 16.9 points per game. He scored in double figures in 27 of Asheville's 30 games, including eight 20-point efforts.

15 MORE JUST BECAUSE I CAN

Reggie Hamilton (Oakland/Summit)
Orlando Johnson (UCSB/Big West)
Gerardo Suergo (Albany/America East)
Colt Ryan (Evansville/Missouri Valley)
Dominique Morrison (Oral Roberts/Summit)
Robert Sacre (Gonzaga/West Coast)
Tony Mitchell (North Texas/Sun Belt)
Alex Young (IUPUI/Summit)
Mike Muscala (Bucknell/Patriot)
Jarrod Jones (Ball State/Mid-American)
William Mosley (Northwestern State/Southland)
Jesse Sanders (Liberty/Big South)
Frank Gaines (IPFW/Summit)
Shane Gibson (Sacred Heart/Northeast)
Kevin Murphy (Tennessee Tech/Ohio Valley)

FIVE TITLE GAMES YOU WANT TO HAPPEN

1. Saint Mary's vs. Gonzaga (West Coast)

One of the best rivalries in the sport left the college basketball world a bit unsatisfied this season as each blew the other out when it was their turn to host. A rubber match on a neutral court in Las Vegas would be an obvious highlight of the first week of the postseason.

2. Wichita State vs. Creighton (Missouri Valley)

The two nationally ranked teams out of the Valley split their season series, with each winning on the other's home court. This game would have serious NCAA Tournament seeding implications for a pair of squads with second weekend potential.

3. Oral Roberts vs. South Dakota State (Summit)

The two conference leaders pasted one another in the regular season, with Oral Roberts beating SDSU by 22 in early January and the Jackrabbits handing the Golden Eagles their only conference loss with a 75-60 win on Feb. 2. The skill level and style of play would make almost certainly make this one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences of Championship Week.

4. Weber State vs. Montana (Big Sky)

Weber State has snatched all the Big Sky headlines this season, but Montana is right there with them at 14-1 in conference play. The two will meet for the league title on Tuesday night, but a rematch for all the marbles on March 7 appears likely. The Wildcats (that's Weber) won the first meeting by 16 on Jan. 14.

5. Long Island vs. Wagner (Northeast)

LIU is a win over Sacred Heart away from capturing the regular season title outright, but many believe Wagner is the class of the league. Still, the Blackbirds won the only regular season meeting and did so on the road, with a 73-66 victory on Jan. 21. Both teams can put up a lot of points in a hurry.

FIVE CRAZY COMPETITIVE CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS

Parity reigns supreme and should make for some tremendous games in each of these leagues.

1. Colonial Athletic Association

The bottom of the league is awful, but six teams finished with double digit conference wins, and four of those squads have 20 or more wins overall. After the first round, the tournament's going to get very good.

2. Horizon League

All but three of the 10 teams in the league finished the regular season with 10 or more conference wins. Valparaiso and Cleveland State have the extreme benefit of a double bye into the semifinals, but there are five other teams -- including two-time defending national runner-up Butler -- that are fully capable of capturing the league's auto-bid.

3. Missouri Valley

Yes, it's top heavy with Wichita State and Creighton, but after that there are five teams with identical 9-9 records, and Indiana State is just a game back of that group at 8-10. Some of the most competitive postseason basketball will be played in St. Louis this week.

4. Mid-American

Akron may be the clear favorite at 12-2, but the Zips showed some vulnerability in their blowout loss at Ohio over the weekend. Crazy things tend to happen in the MAC, where parity has seemed to be a theme for ages.

5. MEAC

Savannah State currently boasts an impressive 13-2 mark, but there are five other teams in the league that are at least three games above .500 in league play, including 12-3 Norfolk State.

FIVE LESS-EXCITING CONFERENCE TOURNAMENTS

There's been a growing trend in recent years of leagues starting their regular season champions, or top two seeds, in the semifinals of the postseason tournament. It makes sense in that it adequately rewards regular season performance and gives the league its best shot to be well-represented in the NCAA Tournament, but it's like, not as fun.

It's not a coincidence that two of the first league's to employ this set-up (Horizon/West Coast) just happen to include perhaps the two biggest names in mid-major basketball (Butler/Gonzaga). You don't send your No. 3 dog to Westminster.

Here are five conference tournaments that hope the prince cheats on Cinderella in 10 years:

1. Big Sky

Not only does the Big Sky automatically place its top two seeds in the semifinals, but it only includes six teams in the whole tournament. A conference tournament that has as many total games as a first round baseball playoff series is un-American. I said it.

2. Horizon League

The Horizon has been utilizing this practice for a few seasons, but three years ago they stepped it up (down?) a notch. Now the top two seeds get an automatic bye into the semifinals, while the other eight teams have to win four games in four days if they want to dance. Milwaukee, Detroit and Butler all finished just a game behind Cleveland State in the league standings, but they'll have to win two more games than the Vikings to make the NCAA Tournament.

3. West Coast

This has been the easiest championship game to predict for the past few years as Gonzaga and Saint Mary's have consistently begun their postseasons in the semifinals. While the tournament as a whole might not be that fun, the addition of BYU and Loyola Marymount's ability to occasionally be awesome should make the WCC semis among Championship Week's best.

4. Big West

The Big West gives its top two seeds a bye into the semifinals, but it's also one of the few leagues that employs the NHL style of having the highest remaining seed play the lowest remaining seed in each round. Smart? Sure. Annoying as hell for fans of postseason college basketball? You bet. Guaranteed to make people filling out the bracket screw up at least once? 100 percent.

What have we learned so far? Conference tournaments west of the Mississippi are infinitely lamer than conference tournaments east of the Mississippi. The Big East has four games for three straight days. THREE STRAIGHT DAYS OF FOUR GAMES.

Grow up, left coast.

5. Ivy League

Say what you will about the other four, but at least they have tournaments. Also, "Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth ..." You got that from Vickers. "Work in Essex County," page 98, right? Yeah I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or is that your thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage and then you pretend -- you pawn it off as your own -- your own idea just to impress some girls? Embarrass my friend?

Nerds.

I'll take it all back if this happens again:


Bonus Crappy Tournament: Ohio Valley

Giving its top two teams an auto-bye to the semis for the second straight year. Way to immediately make me regret that shot at the left coast. Also, the names of a lot of your teams are extremely long, and Murray State being ranked and demanding so much attention made a lot of people have to type those names out multiple times. It wasn't fun.

Also, the Mid-American has adopted the top two seeds to the semifinal format for the first time this year, but I'm giving them a pass with the hopes that it will make them change. MAC...I pardon you.

FIVE TEAMS EVEN THOSE WHO STOPPED READING SHOULD WATCH

1. Iona (MAAC)

They're the nation's leading scoring team and they start three guys who will play professionally for a long time. Watch them play, be entertained, and then be horrified if they pop up below your team on Selection Sunday.

2. Belmont (Atlantic Sun)

Remember that Duke game? Yeah, they still play that way.

3. Creighton (Missouri Valley)

They're one of the nation's leading scoring teams and they boast a first team All-American. Not your average Valley squad.

4. Long Island (Northeast)

Charles Jones would be proud of the way these Blackbirds can put the ball in the basket.

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5. Weber State (Big Sky)

Damian Lillard alone is worth at least one viewing experience, but the Wildcats as a whole are extremely entertaining.

10 DANGEROUS NON-TOP SEEDS WHO COULD STEAL A BID

1. Tennessee State (Ohio Valley)

The Tigers finished the regular season winners of nine of their last ten games and are the only team in the country to have knocked off Murray State. They have a bye straight into the OVC semis and could steal a bid to the big dance with a second upset of the Racers.

2. Vermont (America East)

The Catamounts have won 11 of their last 12, including a 19-point trouncing of regular season champion Stony Brook. The only loss for Vermont during this stretch was a baffling 57-53 defeat to 1-28 Binghamton.

3. USC Upstate (Atlantic Sun)

Upstate has the best player in the conference in Torrey Craig and their only loss in their final seven games came at Belmont. If they can slip past host Mercer in the semifinals then they'll give the Bruins all they can handle in the title game.

4. Delaware (Colonial Athletic)

The Fighting Blue Hens enter the CAA Tournament as the five seed, but they're also riding an eight-game winning streak. One of those eight victims was third-seeded George Mason.

5. Ohio (Mid-American)

The Bobcats have underachieved during a (to date) four-loss conference season, but their non-conference performance and recent thrashing of Akron are more than enough evidence to prove that they'll be dangerous in the MAC Tournament. Beating out Buffalo for the second double bye would be huge.

6. Robert Morris (Northeast)

LIU broke RMU's collective heart with an overtime win in last year's title game, but the Colonials exacted a small bit of revenge by being the first NEC team to beat the Blackbirds when they did so in January. They had won six straight before a loss at Quinnipiac over the weekend.

7. Delaware State (MEAC)

A team that had lost eight straight games at one point in the season has now won 10 out of 11 in conference play. The Hornets' lone MEAC defeat in February came via a 73-72 loss to Morgan State on Monday.

8. Liberty (Big South)

The Flames closed the regular season with five straight conference wins, including triumphs over top four teams Campbell, Coastal Carolina and Charleston Southern. They also have Jesse Sanders, one of the most versatile guards and best leaders in the country.

9. Denver (Sun Belt)

One of the mid-major darlings of the early part of the season, the Pioneers have bounced back from a poor start in conference play by winning five of their last six, all by double digits. Denver is also one of only two teams in the conference to knock off Middle Tennessee.

10. Lehigh (Patriot League)

They've got the league's best player in C.J. McCollum, they've won nine of their last 10, and they've recently beaten regular season champion Bucknell.

FIVE MORE BECAUSE, YES, I STILL CAN

Cal State Fullerton (Big West)
Detroit (Horizon)
Holy Cross (Patriot)
College of Charleston (Southern)
BYU (West Coast)

And there you have it.

If you didn't read every word, but are reading this now, you have to find a Taco Bell that still sells those shrimp tacos and eat five of them. It's not my call, that's just how Championship Week works. Blame Bilas.

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