One of the biggest factors in the NCAA Tournament is star power. The teams featuring players who are capable of taking their game to the next level during crunch time to survive tough tests along the way are always going to have an edge.
When you analyze the complete bracket for March Madness (printable version here), it's readily apparent that it's a wide-open field. Given the lack of a truly dominant team and all the upsets during the regular season, that's not a surprise.
It's golden opportunity for star players on the top seeds to shine. The ones that do over the next couple weeks will likely be playing in Atlanta during the Final Four. Let's examine three players capable of doing exactly that.
Cody Zeller (Indiana)
Zeller entered the season with a lot of hype after a strong freshman season. He didn't crumble under the pressure. Instead, he further established himself as one of the top post players in the nation by averaging 17 points and eight rebounds while shooting 57 percent.
He also recorded 10 double-doubles and, unlike many big men, isn't a liability at the free-throw line (76 percent). It's that consistent, reliable ability across the board that makes him a perfect building block for a Final Four team.
The quicker he can make his presence felt down low, the sooner players like Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford can get involved. And when those three guys are all clicking at the same time, the Hoosiers are an incredible force.
Russ Smith (Louisville)
Gorgui Dieng controls the paint and Peyton Siva is the spark plug, but everything still starts and ends for Louisville with Smith. He leads the team at over 18 points per game and the Cardinals only dropped two games when he scored at least 20, one of those being a five-overtime loss to Notre Dame.
While Smith's scoring is crucial, his defense is often overlooked. He has improved markedly on that end of the floor during his three years at Louisville and has learned how to handle taller guards while also being very active in passing lanes.
The Cardinals are in a very deep Midwest region, which also features Duke, Michigan State and Saint Louis. In order to survive that group, they need Smith to control the game on both ends of the floor, something he's done frequently throughout the season.
Aaron Craft (Ohio State)
Craft is exactly the type of pesky player opposing teams hate to play. He's not going to light up the scoreboard with a lot of points, but he's going to chip in his fair share while also helping run the offense and playing elite defense.
He knows players like Deshaun Thomas, LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr. can pick up the scoring slack. His focus is shutting down the other team's top perimeter scorer by any means necessary. He's one of the nation's best at it.
Since he's gained that reputation over the past couple seasons, it also gives him a mental edge. Every opposing guard that goes against him knows they will be forced to work hard for each bucket, and that often results in them forcing things early. It's also why Craft and the Buckeyes are title contenders.
Make your picks for the 2013 NCAA Tournament here with the Bracket Challenge Game.