There will be nearly 1,000 student-athletes, representing 68 different schools, participating in this year's NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament, which kicks off this week at sites around the country.
Although Howard County isn't home to one of those schools, that doesn't mean there won't be some local faces to cheer for.
Four players who grew up in Howard County, two who played for schools in Columbia for at least two years, will be participating in the madness this march and chasing a national championship.
Here's a look at each of the players and their roles on their respective squads:
College: Notre Dame (22-11, No. 7 seed, South Region)
High school: Mount St. Joseph (Districted for Atholton)
First game: Friday, March 16 vs. No. 11 Xavier (21-12) at Greensboro, N.C., approximately 10 p.m. (30 min. after Duke-Lehigh game), CBS-TV.
Scouting Report: Pretty much everything for the Fighting Irish starts with Atkins, a 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard who grew up in the Columbia neighborhood of Hickory Ridge. As an every-game starter this season, he ranks among the top three on the team in points (12.2 per game), assists (4.1), steals (40 total) and 3-point field goals (43).
Atkins serves as the primary ball handler for Notre Dame, helping bring the ball up against pressure and getting the team into its offense. He's not often the team's first scoring option, but is more than capable on that end as he showed with three games this year of 20 points or more. Post-season experience is also on his side after averaging 7.5 points off the bench in two NCAA tournament games last season as a freshman.
High school: West Oak Academy, Fla. (First two years at Hammond)
First game: Friday, March 16 vs. No. 12 California or South Florida (first-round winner) at Nashville, Tenn., approximately 10 p.m. (30 min. after Michigan-Ohio University game), TNT-TV.
Scouting Report: A 6-foot-9 redshirt-freshman forward, Lee has improved leaps and bounds over the past four seasons. To put things in perspective, Lee didn't even make the varsity team at Hammond as a freshman and sophomore (2007-08). But he grew five inches, moved to Florida and worked his way to a Division I scholarship.
After sitting out last season with a back injury, Lee has blossomed into a major cog for the Owls. He has started in 17 of the team's 31 games, is playing around 19 minutes a night, and is averaging 5.1 points and 5.3 rebounds. Arguably his best game of the season came in Temple's 78-73 win over Duke, where he scored 11 points, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked three shots. In mid-December, Lee garnered Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week honors.
Scouting Report: An ESPN top 100 recruit out of high school, the 6-foot-10 senior center was a bench player during his first three years with the Hoyas. But after rededicating himself during the off season, Sims has emerged as one of the most improved players in the country. His 11.7 points per game is eight more than his junior campaign (3.6 ppg) and he's been a starter in all 31 contests this year.
The most important improvement, though, in terms of Georgetown's success, has been Sims' passing. A lot of the team's offense runs through him at the high post and he currently ranks first among Division 1 centers in assists per game (3.5). Ten times this season he's had five assists or more and his 107 total assists are 47 more than the next highest player on the team.
His offensive production may be the biggest key to a long NCAA tourney run for Georgetown, as the Hoyas are 14-1 in games this season where he's scored 12 points or more.
First game/TV: Friday, March 16 vs. No. 14 Belmont (27-7) at Columbus Ohio, approximately 3:15 p.m. (30 min. after San Diego State-North Carolina State game). tru-TV.
Scouting Report: Last year's Howard County Player of the Year has thrived in his role as the first or second person off the bench for the Hoyas. The versatile 6-foot-8 freshman shooting-guard has made his calling on the defensive end, so much so that Georgetown coach John Thompson III has been quoted as saying Whittington could very well develop into one of the best defenders in program history.
He's been very effective in other areas as well. Playing 19 minutes a night, he's contributed 4.2 points, 2.8 rebounds and 18 total 3-pointers over the course of the season. Four times in his last eight games he has scored at least nine points, including a season-high 15 points on 5-6 shooting from the floor in a 59-41 victory over Notre Dame Feb. 27.
Whittington is one of 10 freshmen or sophomores on the Hoyas' roster.