Regular season success puts college basketball stars on the radar of NBA scouts and awards lists. When a player takes his game to another level during tournament time, it has longer-lasting implications, shaping the legacy of the athlete and his respective program.
Superstars don't always last long in the NCAA tourney, and some of this year's standouts are sure to bow out in opening-week action. But for those who survive and advance, an opportunity at basketball immortality awaits.
In recent years, we've seen stars cement their status as March Madness greats.
Carmelo Anthony, Kemba Walker and Juan Dixon each led teams to national titles with virtuoso postseason performances. Those players were preceded by the likes of Christian Laettner, Bill Walton and Danny Manning, just to name a few.
Who's ready to spearhead a surge toward a Final Four appearance in Atlanta? We break down a slew of stars who have the necessary skills and supporting cast to enjoy a lengthy stay on the big stage.
Porter Jr. put Georgetown on his back during a season-defining midwinter win streak. The 6'8" forward averaged 20 points and eight rebounds during a span of 11 straight victories, helping vault the Hoyas to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Georgetown is far from a one-man show, winning with one of the nation's best defenses and a balanced scoring attack, but Porter Jr. has proven capable of carrying the load when his supporting cast struggles.
He tallied 33 points on 12-of-19 shooting in a February win at Syracuse. The Hoyas secured a 57-46 win despite the rest of Georgetown's players delivering a dreadful 20 percent performance from the floor.
The Canadian seven-footer has been a force throughout Gonzaga's greatest season. The Bulldogs' big man landed on the list of Wooden Award finalists by leading the program to its first No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney.
Olynyk has tallied two double-doubles in three games this month and landed on the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. He's eclipsed the 20-point mark 11 times this season and is an excellent shooter at the free-throw line (79 percent).
Olynyk has made tremendous improvements since last season's unusually timed redshirt year.
"My comfort level is probably at an all-time high right now," Olynyk told CBC Sports reporter John Chick.
The freshman phenom can take serious strides toward solidifying himself as the top pick in the 2013 NBA draft with a strong tournament. McLemore, a 6'5" guard, gives Kansas an athletic freak capable of slashing into the paint and slamming with authority.
He has been absolutely lethal from beyond the three-point arc in March. McLemore is 17-of-35 from outside in six games this month.
The frosh lit up West Virginia on March 2, burying five three-pointers and 12-of-15 shots on his way to a career-high 36 points. That was one of McLemore's three 30-plus performances during the season.
The latest in a long line of one-and-done freshman, McLemore has been able to avoid the proverbial "rookie wall" and continues to appear more confident in critical situations.
Zeller is also in the mix as the top pick in the NBA draft. The sophomore center has been Mr. Consistent throughout his career at Indiana.
Along with Hoosiers guard Victor Oladipo, Zeller has become the face of the program's return to national prominence. The seven-footer scored at least 19 points in 10 of 20 matchups against Big 10 opponents, growing into an emotional leader.
He totaled 49 points and 19 rebounds in a pair of wins over Michigan and Illinois last week. Zeller is a tireless worker on both ends of the court and often wears down opposing post players by game's end.
He owns 10 double-doubles this season and few big men can matchup with Zeller for 40 minutes.
Larkin caught fire from the floor during the second half of the season and hasn't come close to cooling off. The 5'11" guard guided Miami to its first ACC tournament title with torrid shooting, averaging 23 points in three postseason matchups.
He closed out North Carolina in the conference championship game with a complete performance. Larkin played all 40 minutes of the 87-77 victory over the Tar Heels, accumulating a career-high 28 points to go with seven assists, five rebounds and two steals.
“Shane Larkin is a pro,” UNC coach Roy Williams told newsobserver.com after the game. "That’s not a sly way of me trying to get him to leave by any means. I wish he would catch a 24-hour cold when they play us.”
Larkin, a sophomore, is absolutely relentless and rises up late. He's seen at least 34 minutes of game action in 13 straight contests.
The Bluejays dynamic forward is the only repeat Wooden Award finalist from 2012 and should be tempted to leave school early in pursuit of a professional career after his junior season. McDermott, a 6'8" bruiser, buries 50 percent of his shots from three-point territory and presents a matchup nightmare for teams with thin rotations.
He averages 23.1 points and eight rebounds per contest, continuing to gain consistency as the season rolls on. McDermott has been on an absolute tear during Creighton's final stretch of the season.
On March 2, he scored 41 points on 15-of-18 shooting against Wichita State (NCAA tournament team). Three days earlier, McDermott drained 12-of-17 attempts in a win at Bradley, bullying his way to 32 points and 11 rebounds.
The rangy forward improved throughout a breakout junior season, averaging nearly 20 points per game to lead the Buckeyes. Thomas starred last week as Ohio State overwhelmed its conference rivals en route to a Big Ten tournament title.
He is getting it done on the big stage, which bodes well for the Buckeyes' fortunes moving forward.
Thomas tallied at least 20 points against four nationally ranked opponents and averaged 22 points in two matchups against Indiana (the teams split during the regular season).
Off the court, Thomas is the kind of guy people love to root for during moments like this. He's overcome personal struggles to emerge as a Wooden Award finalist.
"If I didn't have basketball, to be honest, I'd probably be a no-name, lame guy, probably out on the street, probably would have had eight kids in high school,” Thomas told The Cleveland Plain Dealer. “You've always got to love the game, especially when growing up, that's basically all you had. You've got to know great things can happen for you in life. I feel that's happened at this stage. But there's a lot more basketball left.”
Plumlee punishes opposing post defenders. The savvy 6'10" senior implements a myriad of moves that free him up for open looks inside.
His ability to finish at the rim ranks him among the nation's most tenacious players in the paint. Plumlee also provides a presence on the defensive end, blocking at least three shots in six games this season.
The Wooden Award finalist enters the tournament with 17 double-doubles to his credit. The Blue Devils excel when things start inside with Plumlee, who anchors America's best orchestrated half-court offense.
When he does damage down low, it sets the stage for Duke's rotation of dangerous sharpshooters to step up and pummel opponents from outside.
Smith stepped up in the Big East tourney, torching Notre Dame and Villanova for 48 total points to lead Louisville into the conference title game. The Cardinals overcame Syracuse in the championship and claimed the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed.
The diminutive junior guard is an exhilarating ball-handler who can create even when the defense seems to have him clamped down. Smith averages 18.1 points per game and displays quality distribution skills, as evidenced by his six assists in the Big East semifinals.
Smith enters the tourney with his draft status up in the air. Some still doubt he's worthy of a first-round selection, much less a lottery pick.
This is his time to shine and ensure his place among the this draft class' top guard prospects.
Berggren lands on this list because of how key his interior defensive efforts are for Wisconsin. The Badgers, who finished runner-up in the Big Ten tournament, bully opponents inside with strong box-outs and elite size from wings to rim.
Berggren, a 6'10" senior, is the foundation of Wisconsin's defensive assault. He swats away an average of two shot attempts per game and rarely surrenders space in the paint.
When Wisconsin knocked off Indiana in the Big Ten semifinals, Berggren paved the way. He scored 16 points, pulled down eight boards and racked up four blocks.
Burke, another Wooden Award finalist, is among the land's premier playmakers in pressure-packed situations. The 6'0" sophomore guard excels in a number of roles for Wolverines coach John Beilein.
He is a sensational perimeter shooter, hitting more than 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. Indiana barely escaped his long-distance onslaught on March 10, when Burke buried five three-pointers in a 72-71 defeat.
Despite a size disadvantage, Burke is a bulldog on defense and does an excellent job of cutting off perimeter passing lanes. He averaged three steals per game in March and keeps the Wolverines' transition game on track.
Although he's the team's first scoring option, Burke shares the wealth. He averages nearly seven assists per game.
Obviously, there's plenty that goes into preparing a game plan against a guy like Trey Burke.
“He’s that good of a player, where you can’t really stop him, because he makes tough shots,” Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson told New York Times reporter Pat Borzi. “You’ve just got to hope that he misses and make him take tough shots every single time.”