Few events in sports can turn unknowns into legends faster than the NCAA tournament. A monster upset or two can propel a player (or a program) to instant national recognition, while surviving the underdog gauntlet adds that much more luster to the big-name stars fans have watched all season.
One of the latter standouts this March was Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft. Not only was his peerless defense at the forefront of the Buckeyes’ Elite Eight trip, but his crunch-time offense (including a game-winning dagger of a three-pointer against Iowa State) saved his team more than once in its tightly contested postseason run.
Read on for more on Craft and the rest of the 10 players who’ve made the biggest marks in the 2013 edition of March Madness.
It took Ramon Galloway’s best effort just to make the field of 68 in the first place. His Explorers were relegated to a First Four date with Boise State, even with their senior shooting guard pouring in 17 points a game.
Biggest Game: 24 points (including 6-of-10 three-point shooting), four rebounds and three assists against Ole Miss.
Signature Moment: Galloway opened the Explorers’ upset of Kansas State by nailing a three-pointer. It turned out to be the first of three he'd hit in leading La Salle to an 18-point halftime advantage on the No. 4 seed.
Lasting Impression: Even with Wichita State having snatched La Salle’s Cinderella slipper, Galloway capped his college career by proving that he can score with (and against) anybody in the country.
Ohio State’s bench has been a productive one all season, with LaQuinton Ross leading the way. Though he played just 16.9 minutes a night, he was the fourth-leading scorer on the Buckeyes roster at 8.3 points per game.
Biggest Game: 19 points, five rebounds and two steals against Wichita State.
Signature Moment: After nearly costing the Buckeyes a win over Arizona by fouling Mark Lyons in the final seconds, Ross made up for it in thrilling fashion by burying a 25-footer to beat the buzzer.
Lasting Impression: Three straight big-time offensive performances in the postseason could easily be a springboard to a big junior year for Ross, a year after Deshaun Thomas showed off his own scoring potential with a strong March performance.
SEC scoring leader Marshall Henderson made headlines all year by combining a big mouth with the big shots to back it up. The junior guard’s limitless shooting range helped him ring up 20.1 points a game for the season.
Biggest Game: 21 points and an uncharacteristic three assists against La Salle.
Signature Moment: After laying low during a shooting slump against Wisconsin, Henderson celebrated in his usual uninhibited fashion when the Rebels earned their victory.
Lasting Impression: Henderson proved he was more than a sideshow by leading a win over the stifling Badgers defense, even if a loss to La Salle kept him from joining such stars as Steph Curry in the upper echelon of great one-man shows in the postseason.
A popular preseason choice to have the biggest breakout season of 2012-13, Michael Carter-Williams didn’t disappoint.
The sophomore point guard, out of the shadow of the graduated Scoop Jardine, finished in the national top six in assists and steals while also serving as Syracuse’s top clutch-scoring option.
Biggest Game: 12 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals against Marquette.
Signature Moment: After a second-half rally brought Indiana within six points, Carter-Williams scored 10 of the Orange’s next 14 points to crush any Hoosier comeback hopes.
Lasting Impression: A Syracuse championship is looking more plausible by the day, and Carter-Williams would be the immediate favorite for Most Outstanding Player honors.
If he can battle Trey Burke to a draw in the national semis, that alone would be an impressive addition to his tournament portfolio.
Aaron Craft has been college basketball’s best perimeter defender for two years now. Already a solid distributor, the Buckeyes point guard has developed into a fine complementary scorer, especially in the clutch.
Biggest Game: 18 points, six assists and two steals against Iowa State.
Signature Moment: Craft capped his superlative performance against the Cyclones by burying the game-winning three-pointer with just seconds left to play.
Lasting Impression: Though the loss to Wichita State was a bitter pill for a player who’s seen three terrific teams fall short of a title, Craft’s own performance in this postseason (hitting one game-winning shot and assisting on another) speaks for itself.
On defense-driven Marquette, Vander Blue has stood out all season as a scorer opponents had to fear.
The Golden Eagles’ leader at 14.8 points per game, the junior shooting guard made March highlight reels even before Selection Sunday when his layup knocked off St. John’s in the regular-season finale.
Biggest Game: 29 points and four steals against Butler.
Signature Moment: In a virtual replay of his heroics against the Red Storm, Blue capped a massive second-half comeback against Davidson with the game-winning layup in the waning seconds.
Lasting Impression: After two disappointing seasons, Blue’s finally come into his own, carrying the Golden Eagles offense in an overachieving tournament run.
Despite coming off the bench all season, Cleanthony Early has been the most important player on the Wichita State roster.
The scoring leader of a sometimes-shaky offense, Early has also been a key factor in the Shockers’ vaunted rebounding supremacy.
Biggest Game: 21 points and seven boards against Pitt.
Signature Moment: With five minutes to play against top seed Gonzaga, Early hit what proved to be the second of five straight Wichita State three-pointers in the go-ahead rally.
Lasting Impression: Just getting to the Final Four earns Early a place in a pantheon of underdog frontcourt stars that includes George Mason’s Jai Lewis and LSU’s Ricky Blanton.
He still has a chance to join Villanova’s Ed Pinckney at the top of that list by leading his Shockers to a national title.
Like the rest of his FGCU team, Sherwood Brown was as anonymous as it gets coming into the tournament. Two weeks later, he’s the face of one of the most successful underdogs in March Madness history.
Biggest Game: 24 points and nine rebounds against Georgetown.
Signature Moment: No image captures the Eagles’ exuberance and confidence quite like the recurring sight of Brown’s protruding tongue as he celebrated one of his many big shots over three tournament games.
Lasting Impression: As the emotional leader of the best No. 15 seed ever, Brown joins the likes of Harold “The Show” Arceneaux and Bryce Drew as one of the great unexpected heroes in Big Dance history.
Louisville’s scoring improved by six points per game this season, and Russ Smith deserves most of the credit. The 6’1” dynamo leads the Cardinals with 18.9 points a night, most of them on blink-and-you’ll-miss-him fast breaks.
Biggest Game: 23 points and eight steals against North Carolina A&T.
Signature Moment: Any of Smith’s endless parade of steal-and-score fast breaks could fit, but the pick here is the layup that gave the Cards a 16-point first-half lead on Oregon.
Lasting Impression: Louisville hasn’t even had a serious challenge in its run to the Final Four.
If the Cards keep up this kind of blowout streak, Smith could join the likes of Mateen Cleaves and Isiah Thomas as MOPs whose teams won every Big Dance game by double digits.
Trey Burke is one of the favorites for this year’s Wooden Award, and his offensive numbers don’t leave much question as to why.
Burke averages 18.8 points and 6.8 assists a game, and he’s been a rock as a ball-handler against some of the country’s toughest defenses.
Biggest Game: 15 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals against Florida.
Signature Moment: Burke’s game-tying 30-footer against Kansas is the biggest shot of the tournament’s first five rounds.
Lasting Impression: As a sophomore, Burke has done an awfully good impression of UConn junior Kemba Walker, who put the third-seeded Huskies on his back and carried them to the 2011 championship.
Now the Michigan star just has to bring home the title to cement the comparison.