Sometimes when we think about the Final Four, we forget it's a long journey just to get there.
Many factors come into play before a team can be remembered as great and a champion.
What makes the NCAA tournament so unique and compelling is more often than not, the best team doesn't win.
I was fortunate enough to be part of the 1990 UNLV team that defeated Duke 103-73 for the national championship. The margin of victory remains a record for the title game.
Just a year later, we had a better team, but did not get over the hump, falling to Duke 79-77 in the national semifinals.
The reason: We didn't get the breaks necessary to win.
I fouled out on a play where the official didn't give me the call. It was the first time I fouled out all year. Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon probably played the worst games of their college careers. That combination of events, plus the spirited play of the Blue Devils knocked us out.
That's what can and does happen in the Big Dance.
With that in mind, I have identified five keys critical to success in cutting down the nets as the No. 1 team in the nation:
• Coaching: Bench leadership is vital because you have to have a system in place that players are committed to and have the ability to execute. The truly great coaches have a knack for motivating players and giving them confidence. They don't allow the moment to be bigger than the players. At tournament time, you are going to have to deal with scenarios you haven't faced during the regular season. The coach has to exude confidence. Players benefit from that type of attitude, experience and know-how. A great coach can be worth three points to his team in a tournament game, which is huge considering so many games come down to the last possession. Preparation is probably worth another two points.
• Team strength: At tournament time, we always talk about great defensive teams. In a single-game elimination, it all comes down to your ability to impose your will on your opponent. Some teams have the ability to shoot the three-pointer. Others excel at forcing turnovers. Others dominate the offensive glass. It could be something as simple as free-throw shooting, but whatever it is, to win in March and April you have to rely on that strength, the thing you do best. No matter how good you are, one of those games is going to be a nail-biter. It will come down to your strength against theirs.
• Poise: Through the course of the postseason you are going to face adversity. It could be foul trouble, a bad shooting night. It could be a situation where your opponent is having an out of body experience. It is critical that you understand the game lasts 40 minutes, with ebbs and flows and ups and downs. You have to stay within yourself and mesh as a team. Poise can also be called experience. Don't get away from what you've done all year. You can't allow yourself to get taken out of your rhythm or game plan just because your opponent is having success for a stretch.
• X-factor: Someone has to step up in some way. To get to the Final Four, you have to have a player play the best defense or be the best rebounder he has all year. Perhaps have someone come through with some unexpected scoring punch. It could be a guy who has been inconsistent all year, but suddenly starts to click. This happens every year. Players finally figure out their role and play to their strengths. That gives a team a huge boost and an infusion of confidence.
• Luck: The bounce of the ball or the benefit of a call can save you. So can a critical mistake by your opponent. No matter how good your team is, there will be a game in the tournament where you need good fortune to go your way. During UNLV's title run, we had one tough game, against Ball State. We were fortunate to win because we didn't play great. A couple of good breaks gave us the necessary momentum. Ball State was fired up and played above where they had all season. We easily could have lost. All most people remember about that Runnin' Rebels team was that we won the national championship game by 30. But if we didn't find some luck and pull out the victory over Ball State, our shining moment wouldn't have happened.