I think the mental side of the game is easily the number one reason we made the run that we made the run that we did. First and foremost, there was a genuine belief that no matter who we were playing, that on that given day, we could beat them, we may lose 9/10 but on that day, we could win that game. – Carson Shanks, member of the 2018 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers
The seeds are set. Your brackets are foolproof. All that’s left is for some cinderella team to waltz on in and ruin it all. We’ve seen it all before. Last year, UMBC and Loyola-Chicago ruined everyone’s bracket, with UMBC taking down a #1 seed for the first time in the history of the Big Dance and Loyola-Chicago going onto the Final Four, taking the college basketball world by storm. A few years back, college basketball was spun on its head as Florida Gulf Coast University, led by their high flying dunks and up-tempo offense, finessed their way to the Sweet Sixteen as a #15 seed.
Whether it’s David vs. Goliath, or me against my diet, everybody loves a good underdog story. Each year, a lower seeded team seems to catch the hearts of basketball fans around the globe as they defy the odds and pull off upset after upset.
Every year, more and more teams that are smaller, slower, and less skilled than the prolific Power-5 powerhouses pull off upsets that not even the experts could see coming. So how do these massive underdogs pull off the improbable? Could it be that the mental game allows them do more with less? Sherwood Brown, a senior on the 2013 Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) men’s basketball team thinks so. Brown became a household name during “Dunk City’s” NCAA Tournament run into the Sweet Sixteen as they took down a highly-ranked Georgetown team and #7-seeded San Diego State along the way. The 2013 Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year said “To be honest, going into a game like that [as an underdog] you have to know in your mind that you are the better team, you have to know your team worked harder than the other team. If you have any doubts as a unit then you have already lost the battle before it has already begun.”
Brown assures that confidence is a necessity in completing an upset in March. What Brown alludes to is what the psychology community refers to as self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is an individual or team’s perception of their abilities when facing a specific situation or task. When Brown mentioned the high level of confidence of the FGCU during their 2013 tournament run in his interview with BFTB, they would have a very high level of self-efficacy due to their confidence in winning the games at hand. However, the most improbable upset in the NCAA Tournament’s history had a bit of a different level of self-efficacy.
When Joe Sherburne of the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) was watching the 2018 NCAA Tournament Selection Show, he knew that his opponent would be a good one. When he saw their opponent as the overall #1 seed Virginia, the sharpshooter said, “my heart dropped a little”. The Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin native said, “At first, I thought it might be a problem. Even though we knew we were probably going to be a 16-seed, it doesn’t sink in that you have to play one of the top four teams in the country until you see their name pop up next to yours on Selection Sunday. My heart dropped a little when I saw Virginia. I thought to myself, ‘I hope we score 40 points.'” UMBC knew they had a tall task with Virgina entering the game with a record of 31-3 and hot off winning the ACC Tournament. Although Sherburne lacked confidence after finding out that they would play the #1 team in all of college basketball, his self-efficacy grew as the game crept closer, “As the week went on and we prepared, I got more and more confidence and was not nervous heading into the game,” Sherburne stated. “We had nothing to lose. We treated the game just like any other – no extra film, extra drills.”
The Retrievers confidence continued to grow as they realized the potential of the upset increased. “Throughout the whole game, especially at half time, we really believed we were going to win,” Sherburne noted. “Everyone was talking and encouraging each other. So while I don’t think the mind was the defining factor, it definitely played a huge role.” As we know, UMBC went on to stun the sports world and beat the #1 overall seed Virginia, the first time in the history of March Madness that a #16 seed has recorded a victory in the round of 64.
When it comes to the mental aspect, Sherburne highlighted how difficult it was to stay focused throughout the upset while also keeping up a high level of energy. The now senior explained, “Usually, when you’re playing a really good team, let alone the #1 team, if you’re up by 10-20 points, it’s the end of the game and you can afford to relax a little. But we were up by that much and we still had 16 minutes to play.”
UMBC was able to keep their aggressive mentality against the top team in the country, bombing seven threes in the second half. They also held a double-digit lead for the remainder of the game after Sherburne canned a triple with 16:24 to go in the contest. “We couldn’t afford to start stalling or think the win was locked up,” the senior stated. “I remember getting to the first media timeout of the second half when we were up by double digits. I was in shock and didn’t listen to a word Coach Odom said. I just kept thinking about how we could not lose this lead.”
UMBC’s tournament win was arguably the top moment of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, but the other darling of last year’s Big Dance was the Final Four run of Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers put the college basketball world on notice making it to San Antonio for the Final Four, taking down Miami (FL), Tennessee, Nevada, and Kansas State. So how does a small team from a school that (nearly) nobody had heard of before March of 2018 turn into one of the greatest underdog stories of NCAA Tournament history? Their mentality. Carson Shanks was a senior on last year’s Loyola-Chicago tournament team and he states adamantly, “I think the mental side of the game is easily the number one reason we made the run that we made the run that we did. Don’t get me wrong, our team was absolutely a very talented team, we had some great players that could play the game at the highest level,” Shanks stated. “But still, we knew each and every game that we weren’t going to be the most athletic team or the team that had the most household names.”
Coming into each contest, the Ramblers were aware of their underdog status and knew that they needed and edge to make a run. “We did know that we were going to be more prepared than the team across from us each and every game. I believe we were the most mentally tough team in the tournament,” the Prior Lake, Minnesota native noted. “We never did work with a sports psychologist, but our coaches and senior leaders made up for that in more ways than one with us keeping the mentality of one game at a time. [That attitude] eventually led us to San Antonio at the Final Four.”
What helped make the Rambler’s improbable run in the Big Dance so memorable was the close and nail-biting finishes throughout their Final Four journey. In their first three tournament wins, the Ramblers won by a combined four points. As a heavy underdog in each game they played, Shanks elaborates that the team had a ‘love-hate feeling’ about being the predicted to lose each contest. The center elaborated, “We were very fortunate to win some very close games during the tournament, but we felt as though we had put ourselves in a position to win those games and thankfully the shots went in. Again, during these “crunch-time” situations we were able to look back on our preparation for each game,” Shanks explained. “We felt as though we were too good of a team to consider ourselves ‘underdogs’, but we loved the fact that every game we went in to, we weren’t expected to win. It allowed us to play with nothing to lose.”
With winning in March comes added pressure to continue to play well as each game means more than the one before. With the pressure on the court comes the frenzy of the media, and if there’s anything that the media loves, it’s a good underdog story. Shanks praised head coach Porter Moser for the team having “laser-like focus”. That had been a motto for the 2018 season and it proved its worth in March during their tourney run. Shanks stated, “As cliche as it sounds, Coach Moser did an unbelievable job at having us look at each game like ‘just another game’, I can’t remember one time where ‘Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Final Four’ was used, it was just ‘Nevada, Kansas State, Michigan’. We had a process that had worked for us all year and we stuck to it regardless of the noise coming in regarding [our team].” Shanks also recognized the value of the Ramblers not getting caught up in the moment, but instead just focusing on executing their craft. “To be honest, to this day I’m still not entirely sure of the scope of magnitude that we were playing under, we just knew that we had a big game in front of us to win and execute, and we did that all the way to San Antonio.”
The needed mindset and confidence that Brown, Sherburne, and Shanks alluded to is exactly what Darnell Harris thinks is needed to pull off an upset worthy of busting your bracket. Harris was the heart of the Middle Tennessee State Blue Raider team that toppled the #2-seeded Michigan State team led by current Chicago Bull Denzel Valentine. The Blue Raider forward elaborated on the experience by saying, “Going into the tourney, we were already full of confidence. Once we seen that our opponent was MSU (Michigan State University) we knew it would be tough.” MTSU used a team effort to secure the win over Izzo’s Spartans, as each of the five Blue Raider starters scored in double digits en route to a 90-81 victory. “We were confident not only in ourselves, but also our coaching staff that prepared us all season long and we been preparing all year for that big game. With the work we put in everyday we knew we had a chance!” Harris also keyed in on how the mental aspect is important by explaining, “The mental game all comes from the work you put in and the focus you establish before the game! Our preparation all the week made us physically ready but also mentally! In that game we knew were going to have to be mentally strong.”
These unparallelled underdogs were all apart of some of the best stories that March Madness has to offer. But what tips and tricks would they tell other heavy underdogs? UMBC’s Sherburne added, “Treat the game like any other. Don’t put any added pressure on yourself, because people are expecting you to lose. And practice your threes.” FGCU’s Brown explained, “The only difference [between] you and these higher seeded teams is the name on your jersey. You have to be confident in the work that you put in all season. It’s only one game, and you just have to be the better team for that one night, then it’s on to the next.”
The matchups are set. Your bracket is made. Now watch it all fall apart as a smaller, less athletic, less talented, small school uses their elite mentality and alpha dog confidence to etch their name into March Madness immortality.