Who is this season's Shabazz Napier?

Before he realized he was hungry -- starving, really -- Shabazz Napier enjoyed a pretty sweet feast during last season's NCAA tournament, eating up in short order -- Saint Joseph's (24 points), Villanova (25), Iowa State (19), Michigan State (25), Florida (12) and Kentucky (22) -- to claim ownership of the month of March.

Back then, D'Angelo Russell was just like the rest of us: a mere mortal captivated by Napier's exploits.

"Oh, I was a big fan, really on that bandwagon,'' the Ohio State freshman said.

A year later, Russell could be collecting bandwagon passengers.

As much as the NCAA tournament is about Cinderella and upsets, it's also about players and star turns, superhuman efforts in which one man seemingly carries his team to victory after victory. Napier was merely the latest in a long line to win the month, following in the footsteps of Danny Manning (1988), Glen Rice (1989), Miles Simon (1997), Wally Szczerbiak (1999), Juan Dixon (2002), Stephen Curry (2008) and Kemba Walker (2011).

To an extent, Russell already knows what those players were experiencing -- that indescribable feeling when every shot falls. The playmaking guard blessed with an equally sweet stroke has been largely, if not singularly, responsible for the Buckeyes' successes this season, even if he prefers to deflect attention to his teammates.

"It's just a switch that just goes off,'' said Russell, who averages 18.7 points and 5.7 boards for the Buckeyes (20-8 overall, 9-6 Big Ten). "It comes on when it's your time. Shots start falling, the attack mode gets bigger and you feel like nobody can stop you. It's a whole different approach than, say, when you start the game. It's hard to explain. It just sort of happens.''

But Russell's heroics so far have come in the ordinary months of the regular season.

Real heroes are born this month. So where are they?

A.J. English, Iona
The junior could be the quintessential NCAA tournament nightmare -- a high-scoring, multitalented guard playing for an upset-minded double-digit seed. English averages 19.6 PPG for the high-octane Gaels and has failed to reach double figures just three times this season. Despite the volume shooting -- English ranks 14th in 3-pointers attempted and 27th in field goals attempted -- he's very efficient. He hits 41 percent of each of those shots.

Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
How would you like Grant to beat you? With his shooting (49 percent from the floor and 34 percent from the arc), his playmaking (6.6 assists per game, seventh in nation) or his defense (1.8 steals)? He's happy to use all three. Ask Duke -- 23 points, 12 assists, three steals in 40 minutes in the Irish's win over the Blue Devils in late January.

Tyler Haws, BYU
Haws originally didn't make this list because, until Saturday, it didn't look like the Cougars would necessarily make the tournament. But with BYU's upset at Gonzaga late Saturday night putting the team in the mix, Haws has to be mentioned. Simple reason: He's the leading scorer in BYU history, which means he has more points than Jimmer Fredette.

Darrun Hilliard, Villanova
The senior is hardly selfish -- he averages 10 shots per game, compared to six and seven averaged by the rest of the Wildcat starters -- and sometimes can even disappear in the flow of a game. And then, this happens -- 14 points in four minutes against Providence on Tuesday, turning a tight, six-point lead into an 18-point blowout.

Stanley Johnson, Arizona
The freshman earned -- truly earned -- a reality check in the Wildcats' win against Utah, benched in the final minutes for both his defensive ineptitude and offensive offense, but he remains the most reliable spark plug for Sean Miller's team. He can score in bunches and is a reliable rebounder (6.8 RPG). After Saturday's game, he's more than likely the difference between being a shooter and being selfish.

Tyus Jones, Duke
The obvious pick for the Blue Devils would be Jahlil Okafor. No doubt the big man will have a say in what the Devils do, but Jones is more than capable of taking over, especially as the beneficiary to the double-teams Okafor will surely draw in the tournament. His furious rally in the final minutes against North Carolina -- all nine of Duke's final points in regulation -- demonstrated what he can do when he feels like he needs to.

Cameron Payne, Murray State
Like Iona's English, Payne is a guy no one will want to see across from their school's name on Selection Sunday, especially if he picks up where he left off in the regular season. The guard is averaging 24.5 points for the month of February and has not been held to single digits since 2014 -- Dec. 30th, to be exact, in a blowout win over Alabama A&M. He ranks among the top 25 in the nation in seven different categories, including, above all, total points. He's scored 605 this season.

D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State
See above.

Juwan Staten, West Virginia
Whether or not you think he traveled in his game-winning spin move against Kansas two weeks ago, you can't discredit what Staten did in the final seconds against the Jayhawks. After driving the length of the court to score, he turned around and ran back on defense, flailing his arms in front of Perry Ellis, perhaps just enough of a distraction to send Ellis' shot off kilter. That's Staten in a nutshell: a killer at both ends of the floor who also happens to be on a mission, much like another guy wearing a Mountaineer uniform -- Da'Sean Butler in 2010.

Melo Trimble, Maryland
John Beilein went so far as to compare him to Trey Burke before bringing his Michigan team to College Park, Maryland, and it's not a crazy analogy. The melodious-named point guard is every bit as adept at creating his own offense as well as opportunities for his teammates. The Terrapins have gone from a preseason tempest to the postseason tournament thanks largely to Trimble, who leads Maryland in scoring (16.2 points), minutes (33.6), assists (3.1) and steals (1.3).

Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
You could just as easily make a case for Kevin Pangos as the guy who could go crazy for the Zags, but Wiltjer's ability to drain 3s in a season when so few people can earns him the distinction here. Certainly, the senior can be prone to off nights -- 2-of-11 against BYU in Saturday's stunner comes to mind -- but those truly are few and far between for a player who ranks 49th in the nation in field goal percentage, hitting 53 percent from the floor. If he gets going in March, Gonzaga will go from doubted to dominant.


1. America East (Begins Wednesday at campus sites)
Favorite: Albany. It will be hard to bet against the Great Danes, who not only dropped just one conference game all season but have also won the conference tournament each of the past two seasons.

Sleeper: New Hampshire. The Wildcats have won 18 games, their most in 20 seasons, and played Albany tight twice this season -- losing by two points at home and one on the road. They also rank 47th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 60 PPG.

Atlantic Sun (Begins Tuesday at campus sites)
Favorite: North Florida/Florida Gulf Coast. The Ospreys earned the regular-season title by winning their final five, but Dunk City will get plenty of attention, despite its two-game skid, to finish out.

Sleeper: South Carolina Upstate. The Spartans have a player in Ty Greene (15th in the nation in scoring) who can take over games and a stingy defense that limits opponents to 60 points.

Big South (Begins Tuesday at Conway, South Carolina)
Favorite: High Point. This one really is up for grabs, with five teams finishing within a game of first place. Charleston Southern is technically the top seed, by virtue of a triple-overtime win against High Point. But between the revenge factor and leading scorer John Brown, the Panthers get the edge.

Sleeper: Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers will have home-court advantage and the advantage of experience, having won this tournament a season ago. Coach Cliff Ellis is a good ace in the pocket, too.

Colonial Athletic Association (Begins Friday in Baltimore)
Favorite: William & Mary. Senior Marcus Thornton missed a would-be game-winning jumper for the Tribe in the tournament title game a season ago. Odds are he'd like to rectify that.

Sleeper: Delaware. Monte Ross has a roster that includes 12 freshmen and sophomores and an administration loathe to give him an extension despite last season's tournament run. Yet, his Blue Hens finished the season winning four of their last five, with the lone loss coming in overtime Feb. 21 against Elon.

Horizon (Begins Tuesday at campus sites)
Favorite: Valparaiso. It won the regular-season title for the third time in four seasons, and the Crusaders, who won eight of their final nine, will get to host the semifinals as a reward. But don't discount Keifer Sykes and second-seeded Green Bay.

Sleeper: There are no less than five teams that can win this thing, so sleeper might be a bit of a misnomer. The edge, though, will go to high-scoring Oakland. Despite a 20-point humbling from Green Bay to end the regular season, the Grizzlies' inside-out game of Kahlil Felder and Corey Petros is a good one.

MAAC (Begins Thursday in Albany, New York)
Favorite: Iona. David Laury and A.J. English are among the most high-octane tandems you'll find anywhere in the country. After settling for an NIT bid a season ago, they are hungry to win this thing outright.

Sleeper: Rider. It would seem silly to call a 2-seed a sleeper, but with Iona a prohibitive favorite, it works, especially since the Broncs have never won the MAAC tournament since joining the league in 1997.

Missouri Valley (Begins Thursday in St. Louis)
Favorite: Wichita State and Northern Iowa. You want to pick one over the other after watching the two regular-season meetings? Go right ahead.

Sleeper: Odds that someone other than the Shockers or Panthers win the title seem slim, but forced to pick third-seeded Illinois State seems like the right bet. The Redbirds finished on a four-game win streak.

Northeast Conference (Begins Wednesday at campus sites)
Favorite: St. Francis (NY). The Terriers clinched the regular season a full week ago now and have plenty of motivation. The school has but one NCAA tournament berth in its history, all the way back in 1991.

Sleeper: Bryant. The Bulldogs ended the regular season on a high note, topping St. Francis by 10. They've got a capable playmaker in Dyami Starks (18.5 points) and a solid frontcourt, anchored by Dan Garvin (11.1 points, 7.8 boards).

Ohio Valley (Begins Wednesday in Nashville)
Favorite: Murray State. Hard to imagine the Racers not winning this one, what with Cameron Payne in the lineup, a 24-game win streak and a bye to the semifinals.

Sleeper: Belmont. The streaky Bruins -- lost two, won five, lost three, won four -- come into the tournament on the right sort of run, with the nation's best shooter -- Evan Bradds hits 70.4 percent of his shots -- and hometown advantage. That's not a bad combo for Rick Byrd's third-seeded team to go for an upset.

Patriot League (Begins Tuesday at campus sites)
Favorite: Bucknell. The baby-faced Bison (three freshmen start) were picked to finish fifth in the league and instead won six of their final seven to outdistance Colgate for the league crown. Junior Chris Hass is the anchor -- he dropped 32 on Villanova early in the season -- but Dave Paulsen has four guys capable of taking over the scoring.

Sleeper: Lehigh. The Mountain Hawks have been plagued by inconsistency -- they swapped wins for losses in their final six games -- but showed what they are capable of with a 19-point win against Bucknell last week. When Lehigh clicks, it can do damage.

Southern (Begins Friday in Asheville, North Carolina)
Favorite: Wofford. The Terriers will be a sexy upset pick if they make the big bracket, courtesy of a veteran lineup (two seniors and two juniors among the starting five) and a solid pick to win the SoCon for the same reason. Wofford dropped but two league games.

Sleeper: Mercer. Remember Mercer? Yeah, so does Duke. The Bears are in a new league but having equally solid results, finishing third in the SoCon. Ike Nwamu and Darious Moten were key contributors on that 2014 team.

Summit (Begins Saturday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
Favorite: Pick a Dakota. South Dakota State and North Dakota State finished with identical 12-4 league records and split the regular-season meetings. The aptly named Jackrabbits of South Dakota like to score (averaging 72.9 per game) and the more lumbering Bison, fittingly prefer to stop people (they allow just 62.3 PPG).

Sleeper: IPFW. Let's face it, the tourney really could use some Mastodons, but it's not on nickname alone that IPFW earns a shot. The Mastodons beat both North and South Dakota State this season and won eight of their final 10.

West Coast Conference (Begins Friday in Las Vegas)
Favorite: Gonzaga's loss against BYU, even though it came at home, does not destroy the heavy odds that the Zags will win the conference tourney. Plus, Gonzaga still has plenty to play for beyond pride. The only chance the Zags have at a 1-seed is to win the WCC crown.

Sleeper: BYU. Not much of a sleeper, but it doesn't seem like anyone else is really in position to win this thing. The Cougars, once an outside shot, do have a chance. It's not only because they just beat Gonzaga, but because they've found their groove. BYU closed out the regular season on a six-game win streak, winning all but the Gonzaga game by double digits.

2. There still is a week left in the regular season for everyone not listed above and still plenty of critical games to be played that don't add up to automatic bids.

Here are six to pay attention to:

Oklahoma at Iowa State (9 p.m. Monday)
Why it matters:
An Oklahoma win keeps the Sooners' hopes alive for a shot at the Big 12 title (they'd need help for the outright title from West Virginia, which plays at Kansas on Tuesday) via a showdown at home on Saturday. An OU loss gives the Jayhawks at least a share of their 11th consecutive regular-season title.

Virginia at Syracuse (7 p.m. Monday)
Why it matters:
A win here and the Cavaliers clinch their second consecutive ACC title. While critics might say the unbalanced schedule works in Virginia's favor, injuries have not broken (pun intended) the Cavs' way, which would make this title hard earned and well deserved. It will be tough to wrestle coach of the year honors away from a man who has a goose egg in the loss column (that would be Kentucky's John Calipari). But if Tony Bennett wins out without Justin Anderson, he ought to be at least discussed.

Kentucky at Georgia (9 p.m. Tuesday)
Why it matters:
If the Wildcats are going to lose in the regular season, this will be the likeliest spot (unless you trust in the sub. 500 Florida Gators at Rupp Arena, that is). The Bulldogs, who have won three in a row, were without leading scorer Marcus Thornton when they faced the Cats earlier this season. They lost that game by 11.

Dayton at Rhode Island (7 p.m. Tuesday)/VCU at Davidson (9 p.m. Thursday)
Why it matters:
Dayton, Rhode Island and Davidson are tied atop the A-10 standings. None of them should be here. The Flyers lost four of their leading scorers from last season's Elite Eight team. Even coach Danny Hurley figured his young Rams (two sophomores and a freshman in the starting rotation) were a year away, especially since the Wildcats are in their first season in the league after making the jump from the SoCon.

Yale at Harvard (8 p.m. Friday)
Why it matters:
With two games to play, the Crimson and Bulldogs are knotted atop the Ivy League standings and as everyone ought to know by now, there is no such thing as an Ivy tournament. So to get to the automatic NCAA tournament bid, you have to win the regular season.


• How crazy is the Big 12? If Kansas were to lose its last two regular-season games (to West Virginia and Oklahoma), Big 12 director of communications Rob Carolla said there is a mathematical equation that could lead to a five-way tie for first in the league. Since it involves math, we didn't ask for the details but trust that Carolla will crunch the numbers if necessary.

• Player of the week honors to Stony Brook's Jameel Warney. In two games, the junior scored 55 points and pulled down 30 rebounds. He also blocked five shots for a suddenly surging Seawolves (and alliterative) team that has won six games in a row.


On Saturday, Wichita State won its second consecutive Missouri Valley title, earning the Shockers the chance to climb the ladder and snip the nets.

Ron Baker handed over his scissors to a little girl in the stands. He had no idea who she was. He just saw that she had on his jersey, so he invited her to the court, explaining afterward, "I just felt like someone needed to be a part of something special that happened today."

Exceptionally classy gesture.