Success in May is linked to a winning formula — it's part talent, coaching, intangibles, staying healthy and focused, while winning crucial playoff games.
The last team standing always has strong leadership from within. A winning culture can be established by any player, but coming from seniors makes it work best. You can expect the teams at the Final Four in Philadelphia on May 23-25 will have a strong senior presence.
"Culture wins…A team is going to be a tough out if the locker room's culture is a great one," said Loyola's Charley Toomey, coach of the 2012 champs. "Seniors drive the bus, the underclassmen chose whether or not to buy in. A team that practices hard and really pushes each other will be prepared."
That squad prided itself on game preparation and knowing the tendencies of the upcoming opponent. It showed with a record-setting defensive performance in the NCAA tournament.
"No doubt confidence continues to grow with each win, it's the amount of investment that each player puts into the team's culture that in my opinion will make that locker room a successful one," Toomey said.
Nobody on Loyola's roster in 2012 had previously been down the championship road, yet they never flinched. North Carolina is in the same boat this spring. Senior Jimmy Bitter will try to carry his team to championship weekend for the first time in more than 20 years. Carolina is loaded with weapons like Bitter, Joey Sankey, Chad Tutton and Luke Goldstock. The Tar Heels are deep at the midfield and rangy on defense. They will enter the tournament off a well-needed bye week following consecutive one-goal losses to Notre Dame and Syracuse. Doubters pointing to history will need to be silenced.
College sports is a copycat industry, and who better to mimic than Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer, whose Buckeyes won the first College Football Playoff in January. He spoke about being successful in a tournament-style format.
"Health and freshness of your team is important," Meyer said. "You win with experienced coaches and a mature team that understands how to work hard and efficiently. We had very mature team that I trusted. By the time you hit the 13th to 15th games you have to be smart with your workload."
One thing is certain: talent is rarely trumped. Proven stars make hay in May. Paul Rabil, Ned Crotty, Jordan Wolf, Steele Stanwick and Mike Leveille all delivered. Can Albany's Lyle Thompson, Notre Dame's Matt Kavanagh, Denver's Wesley Berg, Duke's Myles Jones or Syracuse's Kevin Rice duplicate history?
Title teams are always littered with capable role players.
"Playoffs are where the hustle points get multiplied," said Rabil, who hoisted the trophy twice at Johns Hopkins.
A well-trained army is essential for advancement. Notre Dame's roster is deep and athletic. The Irish have never won a title, coming up short twice in the finals. Their 2015 edition is the most talented team coach Kevin Corrigan has ever brought to the post-season. Kavanagh, Sergio Perkovic, Jack Near, Nick Ossello and Matt Landis are primed.
Some role players never see the field on gameday. "The players that fulfill scout roles, play with incredible energy and push the upperclassmen each day," Toomey said. "Total buy in to what the coaching staff is preaching is key — one game at a time never looking up."
A strong and confident coach is a non-negiotaiable. "Strong is important, so is the ability to react, prepare a plan B, C and D, as well as staying positive," Rabil said. "You've got to recognize that your players win the games on the field. Players play their best when they're confident. So give them confidence."
The list of capable coaches in 2015 is long. You start with Denver's Bill Tierney, Syracuse's John Desko, Virginia's Dom Starsia, Duke's John Danowski and Johns Hopkins' Dave Pietramala, all who have won multiple titles.
They have proven instincts which show up at crunch time. The playoffs have become a cluster of one-goal games, where being clutch is critical to survival. The ability to perform and execute under stress separates evenly matched squads.
"In these games you have to be perfect down the stretch," said Ryan Boyle, who won an NCAA title with Princeton and is an ESPN analyst. "You absolutely cannot make mistakes in the last four-to-six minutes. A few recent games featuring high profile teams demonstrated this harsh reality.
"And given how close these games can be, the thing that you are forgetting is ... luck."
In my two decades of covering the NCAA tournament, all winners have had tunnel vision, an ability to focus on today and not the big picture. It doesn't matter who they are facing, the concern is always internal. They want to win the day.
"It's okay to think about the future," Rabil ssaid. "The future is great. Prepare to be great ... the right way. Remember, though, that this should only be reserved for training. Once gameday arrives, you should be playing only in the moment. One play at a time — the trusting mindset."
The five ACC schools are battle-tested and currently 40-3 out-of-conference. They will represent five of the top eight seeds. Last year ACC schools struggled to a 3-3 record in the round of 16. On Memorial Day, the last two teams standing were the ACC's Notre Dame and Duke.
Duke has won three of the last five NCAA titles while playing in eight straight Final Fours. A win last weekend over then-No. 1 Notre Dame can't be ignored. Dominant midfielder Myles Jones can take over. The Blue Devils have improved, no doubt.
"What Duke does different is the approach to fall ball and not playing games in Autumn, " said ESPN's Eamon McAnaney. "It seems to make the season feel less long to the players and they are fresher in a May."
Staying true to your team identity and staying in personality is a must. Coaches who tinker with lineups, practice plans or schemes pay the price. Mastering the basics is a prerequisite. "It's still a simple game," said Denver's Tierney, a winner of six NCAA titles at Princeton. "If you catch every pass you will not lose. Passing, shooting, and ground balls are key. It's not the time to get fancy, it's the time to drill the basics."
Denver has been to championship weekend three of the last four years, falling in the semifinals each trip. The Pioneers bring an explosive offense led by Connor Cannizzaro, Wesley Berg and Zach Miller. Where they are superior to Denver teams in the past is on defense with Christian Burgdorf and Carson Cannon. Faceoff specialist Trevor Baptiste, a freshman, owns the nation's top winning percentage, which provides the fuel.
Syracuse knows where the finish line is, capturing 11 NCAA championships since 1983. With a win Saturday at Colgate, expectations are for a No. 1 seed. The attack has been unstoppable with Kevin Rice, Dylan Donahue and Randy Staats. The Orange always roll into May with high hopes.
Championship teams achieve balance between offense and defense. Maryland, Brown, Princeton, Albany, Virginia and Johns Hopkins are six talented teams that appear imbalanced. The Terps are a juggernaut, ranked No. 1 in scoring defense, but they struggle to score. The Blue Jays have a dangerous offense, ranked No. 10, but a porous defense ranked No. 45. Albany and Lyle Thompson lead the country in scoring despite not winning faceoffs, but havent shown the ability to defend against the top tier schools. The Cavaliers rank No. 9 in offense but just No. 41 in defense. T
An unheralded bracket-buster has never won the NCAA title. Towson, UMBC, Delaware, UMass, and Albany have made Cinderella runs only to end in heartbreak.
So there's the formula for success and road map to Philadelphia. Sunday night (ESPNU, 9 p.m.) when the brackets are unveiled, all 18 teams start anew as equals. You get 60 minutes to make a case, survive and advance, or get pushed aside.
Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.
NOTE: An earlier version of this column had incorrect dates for the Final Four.