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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Dave Boling: The psychology of March madness suggests Gonzaga will survive and advance by focusing on itself

UPDATED: Sat., March 12, 2022

By Dave Boling For The Spokesman-Review

Today, a treatise on the psychology of madness.

March madness, specifically.

It is a time of odd occurrences, unexpected successes and surprise failures, all played out in front of a national audience.

The Gonzaga men’s basketball team has sampled a broad gamut of emotions and expectations in the NCAA Tournament.

They were the Darling Underdogs near the turn of the century when they stacked up six upset wins while reaching Elite Eight and Sweet 16. Although they continued to qualify thereafter, their tournament trajectory flattened, leading to several seasons of disappointingly early exits.

And, finally, they’ve been among the Top Dogs from 2017 through last season, as they’ve twice been to the national championship game.

Once again, they’re heading into the tournament’s first weekend as a No. 1 seed.

But unpredictable things happen. And when you’re the top overall seed in a basketball tournament, every opponent you meet, start to finish, could be considered an underdog.

Gonzaga professor Nichole Barta, Ed.D, who teaches a class in exercise and sports psychology, helps decode the mysteries of competitive motivation from the minds of the underdogs and the favorites.

With her help, I’ve arrived at three suggestions for the Zags.

Suggestion No. 1: Don’t look at the brackets. The opponents don’t really matter, especially the early ones.

Or if you do study the brackets, mentally pencil in your opponent at every step thusly: “Gonzaga.” Not as if it were an intrasquad scrimmage, but a competition in every game against the standards you’ve set for yourselves. Be you. Do what you do.

“Elite teams are vulnerable to upsets in two ways,” Barta said. “First, if they perceive the competition as ‘no challenge,’ and then become complacent in their efforts. Second, if the fear of losing causes anxiety that hinders performance. Elite teams may feel more pressure to perform due to the expectation of winning and the embarrassment of losing.”

The best approach is “that they play against themselves each game, and their success is compared to their own standards of good performance,” Barta said.

Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2) moves the ball against the St. Mary's Gaels during the first half of the Men’s WCC Championship basketball game on Tuesday Mar 8, 2022, at the Orleans in Las Vegas, Nev.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga Bulldogs forward Drew Timme (2) moves the ball against the St. Mary’s Gaels during the first half of the Men’s WCC Championship basketball game on Tuesday Mar 8, 2022, at the Orleans in Las Vegas, Nev. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Suggestion No. 2: Get in touch with your Zag forbears.

As much as scouting early opponents can help with details of the game plan, perhaps watching highlights from early Zag upsets, in 1999 and 2000, particularly, would inform contemporary Zags – none of whom was born in the spring of 1999 when 10th-seeded GU shockingly tore through No. 2 Stanford and No. 6 Florida on the way to a slim Elite Eight loss to eventual champ Connecticut.

Each team they faced in that run was simply unprepared for the combativeness of the Zags.

Those videos might show the current group what it took to get the program to this point, and could alert them to what they could be in for if they are tempted to rest on their rankings.

“A superior team is likely to get rattled if they are behind to an inferior team,” Barta said. “Anxiety causes muscles to tense, and tense muscles lead to different movement patterns that affect whether or not a shot will go in the hoop.”

Suggestion No. 3: Find your flow.

Barta credited psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi with this concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity.

“Individuals are more likely to flow when the challenge is high and their abilities to meet the challenges are high,” Barta said. “In sports, flow is ‘being in the zone,’ and is a precursor to peak performance. When your team is out of flow, they are out of sync and off target, nothing may go right.”

When more talented teams believe the challenge of the opponent is low, it’s easy to underperform. The converse is true of underdogs that believe in their talents. They flow.

Minus the psychology of it, flow is what great basketball always has been about. Right?

Flow is Dr. J swooping to the hoop, a Wes Unseld outlet pass, a Steph Curry jumper.

Flow is Gonzaga’s transition game when it’s in full stride. Flow is the intricate weave of cutters and screeners that eventually extricates an open man, like a backcourt three-card Monte.

Flow is a Drew Timme pirouette to the hoop, a Chet Holmgren dunk when he’s looking down into the hoop. It’s an Anton Watson scramble into Row 3 for a loose ball.

Flow is when there’s no time for thoughts of favorites or of underdogs or of seedings – or of anything but the ball and instinctual movements.

That’s really all this current group of Bulldogs needs consider: Flow.

If they remember that, as they do when they’re at their best, they’ll end up flowing somewhere near the mouth of the Mississippi River on a Monday night in early April.

Columnist Dave Boling can be reached at

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