As we prepare for the Final Four weekend to come, it’s fun to look back at what happened last year. Many of us have already forgotten who played in the Final Four and most of us have forgotten the story lines and lessons from the 2015 tournament, but that’s the thing about wisdom. Wisdom, whether in life and basketball or in spirituality, often comes when we recall lessons from the past and true wisdom comes when we are able to apply those lessons to the present.
I am so thankful that God speaks to us in every area of our lives. His truth is constant in every aspect of life. Don’t let the world and our culture squeeze your faith into a box that is only reserved for Sundays at church and don’t miss the opportunity to allow God to speak into your life through those things with which you are most passionate – like hoops!
Let’s take a look back at some of the moments from the 2015 Tournament and let’s reconsider some of the wisdom we found:
As we analyze the upsets of the early rounds of the NCAA tournament, it can be easy to forget the upsets that didn’t occur. Chalk outcomes are never as enticing, but they provide just as much wisdom for life and faith as those tantalizing upsets that bring all of us back to March Madness. While single-digit seeds are already licking their wounds and unraveling what went wrong, many other higher seeds are still alive, despite the heroic efforts of the underdogs. It’s safe to say at the major college level most of these teams prepared well, had well-thought out game plans, and did all they could to minimize distractions for their teams, but yet, some very good teams came up short. Life is like that, too. You can prepare, put in the necessary work, and have a path of success all mapped out only to have the unexpected happen and you simply fall flat. While it’s impossible to plan and prepare for everything, coaches, players, and the rest of us often overlook some of the subtle errors that can lead to our down fall.
BASKETBALL – Avoiding Upsets
I’ve got my Baylor alum hat on right now and as a fan, I was not happy about the Bears performance in their first round loss to Yale. While the seeding seemed a little off, I also knew that Baylor came out with a lackadaisical attitude we’ve seen before during the regular season, as Yale’s Justin Sears confirmed:
Overlooked them or poorly scouted? I doubt that. Most major college coaches like Scott Drew are meticulous in their planning and preparation and even in carefully presenting information about the opponent to their teams. Coaches are painfully aware of the “Respect All and Fear None” concept, but far too often subtle changes in five key areas prior to and even during the game can rock the boat just enough to allow a marginal performance. I used to believe that teams and coaches who,come tourney time, followed consistent preparation patterns were usually the most successful, but in recent years I’ve gained a new respect for building a team attitude of flexibility throughout the year to help teams handle the stress and excitement of postseason play. Here are five impact areas to consider:
Schedule: Teams who are unaccustomed to changes in their routine often succumb to the changes of the big stage. I’ve witnessed firsthand teams and coaches who mishandled structured and monitored practice times and pre-game warm-ups. Preparing a team to thrive in changing circumstances throughout the season will help.
Scouting: Focus on your opponent or focus on your own team? Use the same report and same staff member for each round or change it up? Players respond to the delivery. It’s not just the plan. The delivery of the plan sets the tone for the team’s perspective. Looking ahead can bolster confidence, but it can also foster complacency!
Game Adjustments: We discussed this a few weeks ago in Game Adjustments with the OODA Loop, but too often when the pressure is on, coaches hold on to their scouting report so tightly that they fail to see the need to adjust. Mike Krzyzewski helped Duke avoid Baylor’s fate against Yale by switching to a zone with 6’9 Brandon Ingram at the top to disrupt Yale’s shooters – see Duke vs. Yale.
Life: Try as we might to focus solely on the game, the stresses of life still can change our tone when we talk and how we relate to our players. For example, in the days before the tournament, Baylor assistant Grant McCasland was announced as the new head coach at Arkansas State. Great for him, but one can only speculate about the possible effect it had on the Bears.
Balance: Making the tournament, or winning any tough stretch of games, is something to celebrate, but it can easily lead to a relaxed tone or approach to upcoming games. Coaches have to help players enjoy the moment and the experience, but also maintain a rock solid focus on the task at hand. Balancing emotions can be tricky.
Will paying attention to these concepts help the favored team win? Maybe. And if not, you can always rely on a 14-2 run in 38 seconds and then go on to win in double overtime like Texas A&M:
or a tip-in from a seldom-used freshman like Notre Dame:
It’s an amazing time of year and this year, we’ve seen it all.
LIFE – Silent Killers
My wife is more important to me than any basketball game, yet so often I make the mistake of neglecting some of the same issues as favored teams in the NCAA tournament. When it comes to a healthy marriage, or any other important relationships, there are obvious elements like quality time, showing affection, communication, and a shared vision, but the subtle obstacles we ignore often have significant impact. Schedules, long-term planning, flexibility, handling stress, and balancing emotions all affect how we treat each other. If the goal is to have a healthy marriage, one that stands the test of time and can effectively handle the cultural trends of today’s world, I need to be aware of the effect these silent killers can have and do what I can to address them before an upset can occur!
FAITH – Certain Victory
This world is coming to an end, but did you know that we are not only favored to win, but through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, we are guaranteed the victory? There is no upset to worry about:
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57)
Yet, so many of us doubt that and question God’s promise. Rather than live our lives confidently assured of our salvation and living in obedience to God’s word, we fall victim to those same subtle obstacles that the world throws in front of us. Before we know it, the observance of Holy Week and taking the time to consider what Jesus’s death on the cross truly means becomes an afterthought or a robotic ritual we feel compelled to observe. Don’t let that happen to you! Consider your ways and consider the subtle influences the culture throws in your way. Enjoy the games this weekend, but more importantly consider Christ’s death for you and the joyous celebration he brings through His resurrection!
Over the first two days of the 2016 NCAA Tournament we’ve already seen a record number of “upsets” and all the pundits have exhausted the notion of parity. If you need to get caught up and run through the amazing list of upsets, read ESPN.com’s NCAA Tournament Upsets Match First Round Record.
It’s gotten to the point where the surprise of the upset has vanished, especially since we can so quickly break the games down and understand how and why the underdogs won. When projecting the bracket ahead of time, though, most of us know there will be upsets, especially with so many mistakes in seeding, but how many can you actually predict? While he erroneously picked Michigan State to win it all, I thought ESPN’s Seth Greenberg did a terrific job breaking things down prior to the Madness and gave great insight about the “art of the upset”
I think we can all appreciate those technical points – imposing your will, limiting turnovers, crashing the offensive boards, and defending – but Greenberg’s last point is one I’d like to focus on: upset winners often have a “go-to player” who steps up.
BASKETBALL – Go-To Players
There certainly were plenty of unsung heroes who played crucial roles for the underdogs, but here are just a few of the lead players who stepped up to propel their teams to first round upsets.
While #12 Yale beat Baylor at its own game of controlling the boards – one of Greenberg’s keys – sophomore Makai Mason stepped up with 31 points on a variety of dribble moves and set-back three’s:
If you check out his history (see SI.com), it’s no surprise that he stepped up in crunch time! We’ll see if he can do it again against Duke.
#12 Arkansas-Little Rock won more games this year than anyone else in the tournament other than Kansas, so with one of the top defenses in the country, they expected to win. But they also had Josh Hagins who stepped up with 31 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and five steals:
That’s stepping up! Read more onMr. Big Shoton USAToday.com.
#14 Stephen F. Austin beat West Virginia at its own game, forcing 22 turnovers and on the flip side, handling WVU’s press and limiting their own turnovers to seven! Amazing! And so was their go-to star, Thomas Walkup:
No, he doesn’t double as the team’s Lumberjack mascot. He just calmly handled everything the Mountaineers threw at him. Check out more about him in this piece from NewsWest9.com.
And finally, in the biggest upset, #15 Middle Tennessee, led by five scorers in double figures, took down popular favorite Michigan State. In that game, a football player named Reggie Upshaw stepped up on the biggest stage with 21 points:
Upshaw is certainly one to watch in the next round against Syracuse and is a terrific story (see 247Sports.com).
These are just a few of the inspiring performances from some overlooked players that makes this tournament so much fun. There are more amazing stories, fantastic finishes, and strategic explanations to come, but let’s collect some wisdom from players stepping up when their teams needed them most.
FAITH – Stepping Up
The Bible is filled with accounts of God’s people stepping up under pressure. Many of us have read about Daniel and remember how God protected him in a den of lions, but many of us forget the inspiring details prior to that miraculous event. As a teenager, Daniel had everything going for him, but when the king of Babylon destroyed and ransacked Jerusalem, Daniel found himself carted off to be indoctrinated into a new culture. As part of Nebuchadnezzar’s grand plan to integrate the brightest young Hebrews into his own personal service, they would be treated like princes, with the best of food and the best of training to help them succeed. But when Daniel realized the food and lifestyle did not line up with God’s laws, he had to step up as stated in Daniel 1:8:
But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.
Daniel stepped up. He resolved to not be defiled and he went to his new masters to work out a deal to stick with the food he was used to, the kinds of food God instructed him to eat. And, he stuck with his prayer routine and the daily routines that kept him close to God, despite a variety of temptations and distractions in the culture around him. As you read the rest of the story, you’ll understand how important that would be for him in the coming years!
And finally, Daniel’s action not only focused his life, but he greatly influenced the decisions of his three closest comrades. Like a star player stepping up to inspire his teammates, Daniel’s performance led Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (see Sarah Coleman’s Analysis) to join him in observing God’s laws and ultimately to their own acts of faith. Today, Daniel’s action under pressure led to Pastor Rick Warren’s inspiring program called the Daniel Plan, which has helped his church and thousands of others learn to live healthier and more spiritual lifestyles in our modern culture. Daniel stepped up in the face of pressure and each of us today can learn from the example.
LIFE – Can You Step Up?
As I watched Reggie Upshaw and the others, I was thinking about times in my life when I needed to step up. I wish I could say that I always have. And as I watch this next round, I’m anxious to see if those same guys will step up again and lead their teams to the next upset (Yale is playing Duke now as I write!). Stepping up under the pressure of the world is not easy, but I want you to know that you can do it. Believe in yourself, and more importantly, align your life with God’s principles. Whatever pressures we face, or have faced in the past, God can use each of us in big ways and small ways!