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Sunday, November 4, 2012
Updated: November 6, 4:50 PM ET
The sport's three-state paradise

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

There is no consensus on why the town of Rising Sun, Ind., was given its name. One legend says John James named the town when the settler, simply struck by the view of the rising sun over the Kentucky hills, went with the obvious.

Descendants of an earlier settler, Robert Huston, insist it was Huston who came up with the name after his party paused on a spot downriver to allow a pregnant woman a comfortable place to give birth. Daybreak was so beautiful, the group not only named the town for it, but also decided to stay put and halt their travels.

Perhaps both stories are flawed. A sun, in all of its orange and round glory, looks an awful lot like a basketball.

Maybe those settlers misunderstood that the sun was merely a metaphor, nature's way of telling the people what was to come.

Because today, Rising Sun sits at the crossover of crossovers, hugging the three borders of college basketball's 2012-13 epicenter. It is a jump shot across the Ohio River from Kentucky and a 3-pointer from the Ohio border, and this season, there is frankly no better place to be for good hoops.

Cody Zeller
Cody Zeller may be the best player in the sport's best region.

Six of the preseason Top 25 teams call Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio home (the six: Indiana, Louisville, Kentucky, Ohio State, Cincinnati and Notre Dame). And the three states go 4-for-4 in the top four, with the Hoosiers, Cardinals, Wildcats and Buckeyes taking up residence (in that order).

Mix in Murray State, sitting just outside the Top 25 and sure to be a Cinderella favorite throughout the season, and the ever-popular darling Butler, and an area always rich in basketball heritage is relatively sick with preseason riches. Along with the rankings, three of the five preseason All-Americans call these schools home -- Cody Zeller (Indiana), Deshaun Thomas (Ohio State) and Isaiah Canaan (Murray State).

But if this were merely a blip, a one-time geographical dominance, it wouldn't be so compelling. What makes this so special is the intersection of past and present that has turned the area into a basketball autobahn.

There are plenty of college campuses where college basketball matters, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a slice of the country where the game means so much. People here aren't admitted to their fanhood as freshmen; they're born into it as infants.

Roots run deep and winning runs deeper. Together these schools account for 51 Final Four appearances.

Yet the eight schools making up this geographical slice of pie couldn't be more different. They represent both a basketball cornucopia and a sociological smorgasbord, mashing the three levels of conferences together -- big boys (Big 10, Big East, SEC); not mid-major, not yet major (Atlantic 10); and the little engine that does (Ohio Valley) -- while simultaneously cutting a swath from college towns to cities to tiny outposts.

At Ohio State and Notre Dame, the name brand is solid, but the overbearing football big brother always dwarfs the basketball product.

Murray State and Butler once belonged to the handful of students and alumni who called the campuses home, but thanks to the month of March, they are now national darlings.

Cincinnati and Louisville are city brash, each with more than enough history and success to brag about.

And then there are Indiana and Kentucky. If you know college basketball even a little bit, there's no need for a qualifier here.

An adventurous person with a two-week vacation, plenty of gas money, a good map, and little commitment to work or loved ones could even plot a heckuva road trip.

Or better yet, allow us to plot it for you (and for those of you who will perhaps take on this trip, I ask one favor: Send email reports from the road):

Jan. 30, 7 p.m. ET: Notre Dame versus Villanova in South Bend, Ind., pitting two of the three longest-tenured coaches in the Big East (Mike Brey and Jay Wright).

Drive 139 miles to Indianapolis.

Brad Stevens
Despite playing in a land of giants, Brad Stevens has made Butler a national name.

Feb. 2, 4 p.m.: Butler versus Rhode Island in Indianapolis. Old wunderkind Brad Stevens versus wunderkind-in-waiting Danny Hurley.

Drive 54 miles to Bloomington, Ind., and honk at John Wooden's hometown of Martinsville along the way.

Feb. 2, 9 p.m.: Indiana versus Michigan in Bloomington. Two of the best teams in the Big Ten go head-to-head.

Drive 105 miles to Louisville, Ky.

Feb. 3, 2 p.m.: Louisville versus Marquette. Check out the KFC Yum! Center, perhaps the nicest non-NBA arena in the nation. Perhaps you can convince Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams to dance after.

Stay a little bit in the city and enjoy civilization, mostly because the next ride to Murray, Ky., is brutally monotonous.

Drive 229 miles to Murray.

Feb. 7, 8 p.m.: Murray State versus Belmont. Might be best game in the Ohio Valley Conference.

Drive 266 miles to Lexington.

Feb. 9, 4 p.m.: Kentucky versus Auburn. Mentor (John Calipari) versus mentee (Tony Barbee). It even rhymes.

It's also my birthday, so you should stay a few extra days, celebrate and send me an e-card. Drive 82 miles to Cincinnati.

Feb. 12, 8 p.m.: Cincinnati versus Villanova. Offer scouting report from Notre Dame game to Cincy coach Mick Cronin.

Drive 106 miles to Columbus, Ohio.

Feb. 1, 7 p.m.: Ohio State versus Northwestern. Celebrate Valentine's Day with Buckeyes coach Thad Matta.

Drive 138 miles.

End the trip in Rising Sun, Ind.

Watch the sunrise and decide for yourself: Were the settlers merely contemplating the sun or envisioning the orange round ball of dominance to come?