Lessons from NCAA Underdogs and Favorites

Dayton, Harvard, Mercer.  Much is made of lessons we can learn from underdogs in the NCAA basketball tournament.  These teams overcome the odds to beat the favorites. They’re feel-good stories that make us smile.

The problem is they usually don’t win it all.  Sure an underdog can beat a favorite on any given day, but can they win on a consistent basis?  Of course, if they start to win on a consistent basis, they’re no longer an underdog.  For a number of years the Gonzaga Bulldogs seemed to be the underdog in the NCAA tournament that advanced past the opening rounds on a regular basis.  It became a bit of a joke. This year they were the 8th seed in their bracket.  Not necessarily a favorite but not an underdog either.

As the Final Four was, well, finalized Sunday night, it was four of the usual suspects left in the brackets.  Perennial powerhouses UConn (7), Florida (1), Wisconsin (2) and Kentucky (8) are in.  The numbers in parenthesis are the seeds each team had in their brackets.  For example, UConn was the 7 highest out of 16 teams in its bracket.  In other words, all of these teams were in the top half of the brackets based on their performance over the length of the season and conference championships.  And two of the Final Four were in the 8 first and second seeds in the entire field of 64.

Strong teams with effective processes in recruiting and coaching outperform year over year.  I can hear the underdog lovers already: “What about ((fill in your favorite underdog team that advanced to the Final Four))?”  What about them?  They didn’t win the championship and they faded from sight. They were great Cinderella stories, winning with emotion and momentum, and we all loved them.  But they didn’t win it all.  This is not to say a team cannot rise from underdog status to a consistent favorite.  Just look at Villanova.

So if underdogs teach us that anything can happen, what can we learn from the teams that make the tournament, the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four year after year after year?  Simply, they do it through consistency.  They are committed to being the best and put in place all the elements needed to execute on that mission.  Yeah, it is boring and it makes many people want to see them knocked out of the big tournament.  But that is just jealousy.

Smart marketers know they want to be like these legacy teams that consistently outperform their competitors, rather than the teams that get the occasional big win.  Sure, the winners take losses now and then, but they learn from those losses and come back stronger.  That is what makes them winners.

The other distinguishing characteristic is that they are true teams.  Players graduate or are drafted, but younger players take their place, often recruited and coached to fit in the team’s system.  The coaches are focused on the present and recruiting for the future.  And everyone understands his role and plays to his strengths. The program just keeps rolling along.

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