2010 NCAA Basketball: The Psychology of an Upset

by Noah Gentner, PhD, CC-AASP

I LOVE March Madness, absolutely LOVE it.  I love watching players become legends (think Danny Manning and Carmelo Anthony…we’ll see if it’s Evan Turner and John Wall this year).  I love discovering new favorite players each year (hello, Omar Samhan, Jimmer Fredette, Greivis Vasquez, LaceDarius Dunn, and Ali Farokhmanesh).  Most of all I love upsets.  Weber State over North Carolina, Princeton over UCLA, George Mason and Richmond over everyone (or at least it seems like that).  There is nothing better than an upset, but why do they happen? Who could have predicted Northern Iowa beating #1 Kansas?  Basketball experts will often point to poor seedings (i.e., one team seeded too high while the other was seeded too low) or style of play to explain upsets.  While these may be viable explanations, I think most upsets are psychological in nature.  More specifically, teams who pull off big upsets typically have at least one of 3 important characteristics.

Lack of Fear and Intimidation

One of the most interesting things about the tournament is it pits big name teams, with big name players, from big name conferences against teams and players who nobody has ever heard of before.  In many cases when the underdogs see Duke, UCLA, Indiana, or Kansas on their opponent’s jersey it takes them an entire half to catch their breath.  In fact, many underdogs in the past have lost games before the opening tip because they convinced themselves that their opponents were invincible.

This is no longer the case.  With the popularity of AAU and other summer leagues most collegiate players have played with or against one another at some point in their lives.  The five star recruits are no longer separated from the two and three star recruits.  This familiarity has broken down the walls that were formerly between players.  In the past, players at small schools only heard stories about the remarkable exploits of their big name foes.  This lack of familiarity bred fear.  Now, they have spent a lifetime actually playing with and against those players; seeing both their strengths and weaknesses.  In some cases they have even played with or against them at the collegiate level.  With the prevalence of transfers many players at small schools have actually spent time at big name programs.  St. Mary’s and Ohio, two teams who have pulled of upsets in this year’s tournament, have former Indiana University players Armon Bassett and Ben Allen.  So, when those teams played against Georgetown and Villanova (or when Northern Iowa played Kansas) they weren’t facing an unknown, mythological force of nature but rather a group of guys they had played with and against for much of their lives.  For these underdogs, the fear is gone.

Higher Goals

I always tell athletes, “Be careful what goals you set, because you will probably reach them.”  The best and worst part about goal-setting is that it often works.  Set a goal to get a “B” in a class and you’ll probably get that “B” but you’ll always wonder if you could have gotten an “A”.  This is exactly what happened to many underdogs in the past.  Their goal was to get to the tournament and they did exactly that…and only that.  We have a natural tendency to relax once we have achieved our goals.  Many underdogs in the past believed they had accomplished their goals by reaching the tournament so they relaxed and got crushed in the first round.

In recent years small schools have set higher goals.  George Mason’s run to the Final Four in 2006 acted much like Roger Bannister’s sub 4 minute mile in that it showed small schools that they could aim higher.  Highly seeded teams are no longer facing players who are just happy to be there.  Now, they want to win…and with more ambitious goals they are doing exactly that.

Clearly Defined Roles

If you have read anything about ultra-talented teams like Kansas, Texas, and Kentucky this year you know that one of the challenges their coaches face is making their players happy.  This is the curse of being loaded with talent.  Everyone on the team wants to score and be “the man”.  They have no grasp of the importance of different roles.  If you watched Texas play this year you saw just how bad this can be: five guys fighting for shots with nobody willing to do the little things needed to win.

One characteristic of teams who pull off great upsets is that the players all have a clear understanding of their roles.  They know who their scorers, rebounders, ball-handlers, and defenders are.  There is no ambiguity and no fighting for shots.  They are totally comfortable with who they are and what they do.  Because of this, when they are faced with difficult situations these teams know exactly what they want to do.  That is why you will often see huge scoring numbers from one player on these teams.  I still remember Harold “The Show” Arceneaux going for 36 in the upset of North Carolina.  He was their “go to” player and they went to him…a lot.  This year Armon Bassett had 32 in the win over Georgetown, Omar Samhan had 32 against Villanova, and when Northern Iowa needs a big shot they go to Ali Farokhmanesh (ask UNLV and Kansas how that has worked out).  It’s amazing what teams can accomplish when their players have a clear understanding of their roles.

There it is, the psychology of an upset.  Too bad I couldn’t pick these out until after they happened (my bracket has more mistakes than the Oakland Raiders’ recent drafts).  But, as you watch the rest of the tournament look for the teams who aren’t intimidated, have lofty goals, and clearly defined roles and amaze your friends with your ability to pick upsets.

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