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7 Things I’ve Learned from the NCAA Basketball Tournament

Anyone who knows me knows that March is my favorite month of the year. And it’s not because of any holidays or the start of spring; it’s because of March Madness. While I don’t follow sports much in general, college basketball is my jam, and March represents the pinnacle of the season, with its giddy array of games, Cinderella stories, and last-second finishes. As you can see from the photos, I root for my home-state squad the University of Connecticut Huskies (and rope my colleagues into cheering too—that’s a picture of a content team lunch in 2013 watching tournament games). And over the years, I’ve realized the tourney’s lessons apply to life as well.

1. Everyone loves an upset.

This cuts both ways: When you’re in an underdog position, public opinion tends to support you. When you’re the Goliath, you need to work twice as hard to maintain your status. There’s a reason that the best clips of NCAA tournament montages are all upsets: NC State over Houston in 1983, Princeton (my alma mater!) over UCLA in 1996, and even (I can admit it) George Mason over UConn in 2006.

2. Early peaks can lead to future valleys.

It’s like the cool kids in high school: 20 years later, they never quite match their glory days. Don’t let a slow start scare you—it’s peaking too soon that can be dangerous. There’s plenty of time to make up lost ground later. In the NCAA, teams who start, say, 10-0 often lose steam midseason and never regain their footing.

3. Believe in the power of a hot streak.

Heading into the tournament, there are always a couple of teams riding high after a string of big wins. UConn’s big win in 2011 exemplified this phenomenon. They entered the season unranked and finished the regular season uncertain of even making the NCAA tournament. But they hit a hot streak in the Big East Tournament, and made an improbable run all the way to the national title. So if you’re feeling hot, take advantage and ride it for as long as you can.

4. Experience matters.

NCAA tournament history is littered with teams who choked at the clutch moment: stupid turnovers, bad ball handling, missed foul shots, you name it. It’s why in the final moments of a big game, teams try to get the ball into the hands of their most seasoned player, their on- and off-the-court leader. During life’s big moments, you have to stay cool down the stretch—look to the people who have been with you the longest to help you make it to the winning shot.

5. There’s nothing better than a passionate rivalry.

Duke-UNC. Syracuse-Georgetown (before the recent conference swaps). Louisville-Kentucky. Michigan-Michigan State. Just typing those matchups makes my heart beat faster. Love thine enemies, sure—just don’t lose to ‘em.

6. A lot can happen in 35 seconds.

During each possession, the team on offense has 35 seconds to make a shot. 35 seconds might seem like a short period of time, but on the court it can feel like a lifetime, especially in the last minute or so of a close game, with foul calls, free throws, time-outs, and chalked-out plays. Lesson here: Clear strategies for what can seem like small things can pay off big-time.

7. You only get 5 fouls.

One of the most basic rules of college basketball: five fouls and you’re out of the game. In life, too, you only have so many chances to get it right.

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