Late February is the 21-mile marker of the college basketball season's marathon. It's been more than six months since most players and coaches started preparing for the 2009-10 season. The practices, weight-training workouts and film sessions have been endless, but it is the next three weeks that will determine, for most teams, whether it has been a successful season.
While pressure comes with coaching, the pressure of trying to get your team into the NCAA tournament is enormous. At the low and mid-major level, what you've done in the regular season is mostly irrelevant because winning your conference tournament in a couple of weeks is the only thing that matters.
For power conference teams, every league game down the stretch will determine not only whether you earn an at-large bid, but also how high your seed will be if you do.
For the elite teams, getting into the tournament is only the beginning of the pressure to perform up to expectations. Ask Kansas coach Bill Self if early-round exits in 2005 and 2006 at the hands of Bucknell and Bradley didn't give him major migraines for two years.
Regardless of what level you are coaching at, getting your team ready to play its best basketball in the last month of the season is an art form. More than at any other time of the season, a coach must play psychologist, drill sergeant, physical therapist, teacher, motivational speaker, time-management expert and problem-solver.
Mental preparation in February and March, in my opinion, is far more important than physical preparation. Most teams are beaten up physically and beaten down mentally by the length of the season, by tough losses, by long road trips and by academic work that always looms. How you choose to motivate your team has a big part in late-season success.
While there are different philosophies about the length of practice at the end of the season, I was always a believer in the "fresh legs" approach. As a coach, you want to keep your players sharp without making them mentally miserable.
While two-and-a-half to three-hour practices were common in the first half of the season, I always cut practice times down to as little as 45 minutes late in the season. The intensity level was still high, but the players knew that if they were crisp and attentive, we got them off the court quickly. The extra time could be used for "mental practice," like a film session or a few new plays to introduce or extra shooting and skill development.
While playing motivator is critical, sometimes coaching psychology doesn't always go as planned. One year at Manhattan College, with our team rolling along at 19-3, I planned to "throw them out of practice" in order to give them the day off. I purposely found something to annoy me and wanted to send them the message that, even with our record, we couldn't be satisfied. In fact, I was just trying to get them some more rest. It backfired.
After I kicked the team out of practice, my staff and I went to the coaches' locker room. After 15 minutes, one of my managers came in and told me that the players were still practicing on their own. They had so much pride in their practice habits, they stayed out on the court for two hours without coaches!
Late in the season, I believed in keeping my players off-balance. At one practice following a devastating loss, our players were expecting a tough, hard practice. Instead, we practiced last-second shots, and every time we scored, our bench players had to run on the court and celebrate with their teammates. After a few pile-ons and with the team in a great mood, we ended practice before anyone got hurt. Coincidence or not, we ended the regular season on a seven-game winning streak.
I also believed in adding some of our best offensive plays late in the season. With the familiarity that comes with playing in a conference and breaking down film, everyone is prepared for the opponent's best stuff throughout the season. So we would practice new sets or add wrinkles to plays we already had in our offense.
One season, when John Calipari was still coaching at UMass and I was at Manhattan, he gave me a last-second play over the phone one night in early January. We practiced it the next day, and I told our team that we would run the play only when we needed a sure basket. We called it "Winner."
For the next two months, we worked on "Winner" every day -- and finally, with the score tied in our conference championship game, we called the play in our final timeout. The players knew "Winner" in their sleep, executed it, and it helped get the Jaspers to their first NCAA tournament appearance in 35 years. It's a great feeling when your players have confidence in you because you have prepared them for success in a pressure situation.
Fairly or unfairly, the next three weeks will determine how coaches are judged. It's where they earn their money or earn the chance to coach again another season. So while it is the players who put the ball in the basket or step in to take a charge, it's a good coach who will help them finish the long race that began, seemingly, many miles ago.
It's what coaches live for.
Fran Fraschilla is a college basketball analyst for ESPN and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter at franfraschilla.