As I type this on February 28, conference basketball tournaments are getting underway, and the excitement will build in the final two weeks leading up to Selection Sunday.
The NCAA tournament is difficult to predict and often comes down to which team can gain favorable matchups, but here are five things it certainly helps to have in your arsenal come March, along with an early handicap of which teams might have those tools and which should be looking over their backs.
1) Great guards -- No position in college basketball is more important than the man who has the ball in his hands the most. And the more players that can do it -- usually the guards -- the better off a team will be. The tournament is all about pressure, and the teams that respond can trust their guards to bring the ball upcourt and set up plays no matter how tough the defense is or how loud the crowd is. The point guard is particularly critical. A point guard doesn't necessarily need to be experienced (see Mike Bibby, 1997 Arizona) or a great shooter (see Wayne Turner, 1996 Kentucky) but he must be confident and able to make quick decisions.
Case in point: North Carolina in 2005 (Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants), Maryland in 2002 (Juan Dixon and Steve Blake), Michigan State in 2000 (Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell).
But don't always count on it: No one really applies. Maybe Syracuse in 2003 had the weakest guards of recent champions, but that's only because Gerry McNamara was a freshman, and Kueth Duany and Billy Edelin role players. But they combined for 41 points in the championship game win.
This year's models: Villanova has the best four-guard rotation in recent NCAA history. Pittsburgh (Carl Krauser), Illinois (Dee Brown) and West Virginia (J.D. Collins) have battle-tested senior quarterbacks. Duke has a guard who happens to be the country's best player.
Watch out: The sport is now driven by guards, which means no team is totally vulnerable in this area. But will teams like Memphis and Ohio State, which missed the tournament last year, get the performances they need from their backcourts in crunch time?
Senior leadership -- With the pressure of the tournament also comes a bias toward the teams that have the most experience, inside and outside the tournament. Senior leadership comes in many forms. Sometimes it's a collection of teams that have been together for a while (Michigan State in 2000, Villanova in 1985), sometimes it's a senior star (Kansas in 1988, Duke in 2001), sometimes it's just a solid role player or two who form the team's backbone (UConn in 1999, North Carolina in 2005).
Case in point: Those listed above. Villanova and the 1983 NC State team were hardened by four years of experience in two of the nation's toughest conferences and certainly stand out.
But don't always count on it: Syracuse and Connecticut won back-to-back titles with only one senior each playing significant minutes. But when you have players such as Carmelo Anthony, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, you can forgive a little youth.
This year's model: West Virginia has the best senior class in the nation. Duke has the senior duo of Shelden Williams and Redick. Connecticut has three key seniors in Rashad Anderson, Denham Brown and Hilton Armstrong. Michigan State has seniors Paul Davis, Maurice Ager and Matt Trannon back from a Final Four team.
Watch out: Memphis has three freshmen and a sophomore as four of its top five scorers (behind senior Rodney Carney. Texas' top three players (Daniel Gibson, LaMarcus Aldridge and P.J. Tucker) are underclassmen.
Depth -- Six games in three weeks doesn't sound like a lot. After all, teams usually play the same number of games in the tournament that they do every week. However, coming off a tough regular season and grueling conference tournament, it helps to have extra bodies to bring off the bench. Depth also helps a team that has multiple offensive options, in case a key shooter goes cold.
Case in point: Kentucky's championship teams in 1996 and 1998 seemed to come at you in waves. Last year's Tar Heels had seven legitimate scoring threats.
But don't always count on it: Okafor still played 38 of 40 minutes in a championship game that was over by halftime in 2004. Duke has won three championships in 15 years largely on the strength of their starters.
This year's model: Florida, coached by former Kentucky assistant Billy Donovan, has nine players averaging double-figure minutes. Boston College also has nine and plays a linebacker style of basketball.
Watch out: Duke rarely goes more than six or seven deep, and they've paid for it against physical Big Ten teams like Indiana in 2002 and Michigan State last year. Both times the Blue Devils ran out of gas.
A veteran coach -- Players come and go in four years (or less), but college basketball coaches seem to stick around forever. Of all the factors that determine NCAA champions, this is one of the most telling. Whether its legends like Krzyzewski, Smith and Knight; lifers like Calhoun, Gary Williams and Izzo; or finally-winning-the-big-ones like Olson, Boeheim and Roy Williams, the list of championship coaches is indeed select.
Case in point: Nearly every champion in recent memory has a coach you've heard of.
But don't always count on it: Steve Fisher is the all-time example here, winning the title as an interim coach at Michigan in 1989. Tubby Smith won it in his first year at Kentucky, but he had a solid track record before coming to the Wildcats.
This year's model: There's Krzyzewski and Calhoun, of course. John Calipari made the Final Four at UMass in 1996 and has rebuilt a solid program at Memphis.
Watch out: If there was ever a year for the trend to reverse, it would be this one, with the likes of Jay Wright, Jamie Dixon, Mark Few, Thad Matta and Bruce Pearl coaching top 10 teams for much of the season. But all of them will have to get past either Coach K or Coach C.
Momentum -- The conference tournament is a grind for most teams, and some argue that it helps to rest your players a bit to get them ready for the Big Dance. But nothing helps prepare a team for the atmosphere of the NCAAs like a conference tournament, in which lower-seeded teams are desperate for wins and ticket distribution ensures an equity that keeps home-court advantages to a minimum in the major conferences.
Case in point: No team takes the conference tournament more seriously than Duke. The Blue Devils have won six of the past seven and preceded titles in 1992 and 2001 with ACC tournament championships. NC State keyed its run to the title in 1983 by winning the ACC tournament just to secure a bid. UConn outlasted Pitt in the 2004 Big East final, and Michigan State won the Big Ten tournament in 2000.
But don't always count on it: In deep conferences like the Big East and ACC, sometimes the best team doesn't win its league tournament but saves its best stuff for the bigger tournament to come. Maryland in 2002 and Syracuse in 2003 followed this path.
This year's model: Conference tournaments are yet to come, but of the top teams, only Duke, Gonzaga, Memphis and George Washington have won each of their last 10, and three of those play in non-power conferences. UConn and 'Nova are 9-1 with the only losses coming to each other.
Watch out: Michigan State and Florida have split their last 10 games. Pitt, Iowa and West Virginia are 6-4.