“The Cinderella Code” is a six-part series by Matt Craig, who spent last season as the lead mid-major writer at The Fieldhouse, which is The Athletic’s national college basketball platform. He has shared with us his senior honors thesis from his time at Ball State University, which examines why so-called Cinderella teams can make Final Four runs. You can sign up for his newsletter, “No Content For Old Men,” here.
Here is Part 5 of “The Cinderella Code:”
There’s a good reason why the media narrative surrounding the 2018 Loyola basketball team centered on its 98-year-old chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt. Her pregame prayers must have had some sort of magical powers.
Is there any other way to explain how the No. 11 seed Ramblers, members of the Missouri Valley Conference, advanced all the way to the Final Four? Each of their first three tournament victories were sealed with an improbable shot in the final seconds of the game. In the opening round, Loyola trailed by one point with two seconds remaining when senior Donte Ingram sunk a shot from 30 feet, his feet touching the edges of the March Madness logo painted across half court, to stun No. 6 seed Miami (coached by Jim Larrañaga).
Trailing by one point to No. 3 seed Tennessee in the second round, junior Clayton Custer took a heavily contested, off-balance jump shot from 15 feet in the closing seconds. He fell to the ground as he released the ball, and watched from the floor as it bounced off the front rim, ricocheted down off the backboard and rattled around the rim once again before eventually, impossibly, dropping in for the win.
The Sweet 16 victory over No. 7 seed Nevada was sealed in the same fashion. A three-pointer from junior Marques Townes over a much taller defender on the final possession extended Loyola’s lead from one point to four. Each individual shot was a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly, and put together, the wins formed an unquestionable miracle.
Up to this point, we’ve investigated the composition of mid-major teams capable of making it to the Final Four. Loyola checked all of the boxes. They had a coach who was an outsider, players who were catalysts and an administration that invested in the sport. All of those pieces are necessary. But there is one more element essential to the success of all these mid-major teams. It is perhaps the most important factor: performance. Sometimes, as Loyola proved in 2018, the difference between winning and losing comes down to making a single shot.
The science behind performance has fascinated psychologists for decades. Why is it that sometimes people are capable of performing to the absolute peak of their ability, and other times they are not?
The most influential research in this area comes from a book published in 1975 by a Hungarian psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In it he invented the concept of “flow,” a mental state in which people achieve both optimal performance and fulfillment through total immersion. In his own words, flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Athletes identify this phenomenon as “being in the zone.” The key to achieving flow is remaining sufficiently challenged and stimulated by an activity, while at the same time staying fully confident that the goals of the activity are achievable.
For our mid-major teams, the first part of this equation is no problem. Taking on a heavily favored powerhouse team in the NCAA Tournament is extraordinarily challenging.
Maintaining confidence is the more difficult proposition.
In order to free players’ minds from performance-hindering anxiety, our mid-majors employed what Csikszentmihalyi called “positive distractions.” In 2006, George Mason coach Jim Larrañaga played wiffle ball with his team during a shootaround the week of the NCAA Tournament. In the locker room before the team’s upset of North Carolina he told his players their opponents were like Supermen, and his team’s green uniforms were the color of kryptonite. Then he pulled out a mini boombox and danced to the song “Kryptonite” by Big Boi and the Purple Ribbon Allstars.
“Seeing Coach L doing that before a serious game, it got us all in a relaxed state of mind,” George Mason forward Folarin Campbell said.
The antics continued before the win over Connecticut, when he told the team that CAA, the acronym for George Mason’s conference, stood for Connecticut Assassins Association. The whole team burst out into laughter minutes before the biggest game of their lives. Similarly when the game was headed to overtime, Larrañaga’s speech aimed to remove any negative thoughts that might be running through players’ heads.
“There isn’t any place that I’d rather be than right here with you guys, trying to beat Connecticut with a chance to go the Final Four. Where else would you rather be?” Larrañaga said. “Are you having any fun yet? Go out and show the world what we’re made of.”
Unconventional motivational techniques were commonplace on Shaka Smart’s VCU team in 2011 as well. After the team finished their regular season losing four of their last five games, Smart ripped out a calendar page for the month of February in front of the team, lit the page on fire and threw it in the trash. It was time to move on to March, he said.
Before tournament games, he showed his team video clips of television analysts’ negative comments towards his team to fire them up, and once he even showed them clips of wild animals running down their prey, complete with the gruesome catch. In both cases, players performed with no doubt or fear. They elevated their level of play in the NCAA Tournament higher than it had been all season. They found their flow.
However, flow is an incomplete way of predicting NCAA Tournament success. It’s helpful for teams, as it can raise level of play, but it’s an equal opportunity ability for both Davids and Goliaths. Plenty of capable mid-major teams fit some or all of our specified criteria and haven’t reached the Final Four, or even the Second Round.
Shepherds like David are supposed to lose in fights with warriors like Goliath.
In the last five NCAA Tournaments, underdogs — under the universally accepted definition of teams that are at least five seed lines below their opponent in the NCAA Tournament — have a record of 46-146, winning only about 24 percent of the time. Of those, games that were decided by more than five points fall in favor of the favorite 83 percent of the time. Fighting flow with flow is a losing battle.
Flow cannot explain what allowed Loyola to pull three consecutive NCAA Tournament upsets on game-winning shots in the final seconds.
There’s a subtle but very important distinction between “letting it happen,” the autopilot mode described by flow, and “making it happen.” The latter is often called “clutch,” the state of mind you need when you have the ball in your hands with a shot to win an NCAA Tournament game. It requires maximum effort, rather than a feeling of effortlessness. In 2017, a group of Australian psychologists set out to explore this distinction, and more importantly study how athletes are able to perform in the clutch.
They interviewed 26 athletes of varying age, gender, sport, nationality, and level of competition as soon as possible after an exceptional performance. They found that there was indeed a significant difference in athletic performance between flow and clutch mindsets, and that the clutch state was activated in a much different way than the flow state.
Loyola was remarkably clutch. How? As opposed to positive distractions, the study found athletes in the clutch state reported more “associative strategies” like setting microgoals and using positive, motivating self-talk.
“These strategies appeared to help by mobilizing effort, focusing attention, and maintaining confidence,” the study says.
The Australian psychologists might as well have been describing Loyola basketball. Before each contest, head coach Porter Moser gave the team game goals independent of the final score, such as grabbing a certain number of offensive rebounds or making a certain percentage of free throw attempts. For example in the 2018 Missouri Valley championship game against Illinois State, a team that had made 10 and 12 three-point attempts against the Ramblers in the two regular season meetings, the challenge was to hold them to six or fewer three-pointers made. Moser, possessed always with a relentless positive energy and laser focus, used the phrasing “we will hold them to six threes” over and over when talking to the team before the game. The final box score showed Illinois State going 5-of-25 from three-point range, and Loyola advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
The team prepared thoroughly for every game situation. Moser was a meticulous planner, posting up to 15 poster-sized pieces of paper around the team’s locker room holding the scouting report on every aspect of an opponent and how to react to any possible scenario.
Very little could surprise players. Ingram’s seemingly desperate shot attempt off a missed shot against Miami was actually a designed play, named “Attack,” that had contingency plans to account for any of Loyola’s players grabbing a rebound. Even during the chaos of the final seconds, the players had microgoals. Dribble here, screen here, pass here. Ingram knew a shot was coming from the top of the key and could prepare to take it.
“Any one of us could have hit that shot, but I was just fortunate enough to be in the position,” Ingram said after the game.
The quote sounds like humility. It’s actually psychological game planning.
“Stuff like that [wiffle ball and setting calendars on fire], that’s just not who we were, we hadn’t done that all year,” Moser said. “We just did what we always do, we prepared.”
The preparation left no room in players’ minds for doubt or comparison to opponents. They had a job to do, and they took care of business.
However, shouldn’t our Goliaths hold the advantage in clutch performance category as well?
After all, their teams possess the more talented players and coaches, who should be capable of performing at a much higher level than their mid-major competition when both sides are putting in the maximum effort consistent with the “making it happen” mindset.
But across the full 192-game sample size in the past five NCAA Tournaments, underdogs have actually won 45 percent of games decided by five or fewer points. At 22 wins and 27 losses, these teams that are vastly inferior to their competition win almost as frequently as teams seeded five or more spots above them in close games. That’s a remarkable statistic. Could being an inferior team really be a desirable disadvantage in the clutch? Dr. Jack Bowman, a sports psychologist and writer for mindplusmuscle.com, thinks there’s no doubt.
”When you engage the underdog position, it automatically gives you a psychological and physiological advantage,” he says. “These are some very powerful psychological effects that they’re engaging here. This is stuff that actually gets the job done.”
Bowman says studies show underdogs produce a different type of hormone that gives them a “positive energy” as opposed to anxiety-causing adrenaline.
“When you are in the underdog position, it activates a perceived lack of pressure,” he said. “‘We’re the underdogs, they’re the ones feeling the pressure.’ You hear that all the time. When you do that, it’s much easier to focus on the process.”
After Custer hit his miraculous game-winner in Loyola’s second-round win over Tennessee, he basically parroted Bowman:
“We’re in the situation where we can go out there and play free and play the way we’ve been playing all year,” Custer said. “We’re a scary team if we’re playing free and like we have nothing to lose. That’s a big part of what we’ve been doing.”
As it turns out, in clutch situations, there are two powerful things working in favor of the underdog. The first is freedom from pressure. In the overtime period between George Mason and Connecticut in 2006, the Patriots made five of their six shots. They had absolutely nothing to lose. Connecticut, surprised and embarrassed and pressing to impose its will, made just two of eight shots.
The second advantage is being underestimated. As we know, Goliath allowed David to charge at him because he was blind and arrogant, and was knocked out cold by a slung stone before he knew what was happening.
During VCU’s run in 2011, the Rams trailed by one point with seven seconds left in the Sweet 16 against Florida State. They had the ball underneath their own basket, and called one of their go-to inbounds plays. Florida State had scouted the play and responded by calling a timeout to draw up exactly what VCU was going to do. They assumed Smart would call the same play the second time around. He didn’t, instead drawing up a new play in his team’s huddle that began with players set up in the exact same formation as the previous play. He told inbounds passer Joey Rodriguez to wait four seconds and fake a high pass deep, where the original play would go, and then pass the ball low to Bradford Burgess who would sneak behind the defense towards the rim.
Essentially, Smart was laying out microgoals. Then he told his team to trust the play, it was going to work. That’s positive, motivating self-talk. The play ran perfectly according to script, and Burgess had a wide-open layup that sent VCU to the Elite Eight. VCU made it happen.
In the biblical description of the battle between David and Goliath, 1 Samuel 17:48 says, “As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him.” He had nothing to lose. He was underestimated. That surprise won him the battle. David, like our mid-majors, won the fight not only because of his unique abilities but also because of his fearlessness to charge the giant.