[Editor’s note: Whitman won its first and second round games this past weekend, advancing to the Division III Sweet Sixteen]
The college basketball locker room is a sanctuary, a serious place where the sound is determined by the circumstance — quiet and solemn before a game, and silent or slammed by high decibels after, depending on the final score.
At Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., the pregame locker room vibe is one that coach Eric Bridgeland describes as “loose,” so much so that the players ritually pull out their cellphones shortly before every tip-off.
But there is a serious purpose for it.
Each Blues player grabs his phone to play a motivational video clip of himself speaking a mantra or self-affirming statement. Tim Howell, a junior guard and Northwest Conference Player of the Year, says on his, “I am an even-keeled assassin,” which is both a nod to his scoring prowess and a reminder to control his emotions. Other players’ video affirmations include words such as “I attack the lane” or “I am fearless.” If a player is struggling from the foul line, his affirmation might include a clip of him making a free throw.
“They’re watching themselves like their own commercial for about 10 seconds,” Bridgeland said. “Most of the time it’s of what they do best or what we want them to do. Those things are money.”
MORE COLLEGE HOOPS
When Gonzaga lost Feb. 25 to BYU, it left Whitman College — a school of 1,500 students less than three hours away from the Bulldogs’ home in Spokane — as the lone unbeaten men’s basketball team at any level of NCAA competition this season. Whitman’s 27-0 record, and the fact it enters the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament Friday as the unanimous No. 1 in the D3Hoops.com poll, is all the more remarkable when considering the Blues had one winning season in the 20 before Bridgeland’s arrival in 2008.
But Whitman and Bridgeland changed their outcomes by avoiding being outcome-based. What they do on the court is determined by what they do away from the court, starting with the team visualizations and video affirmations taught to them by Graham Betchart, a mental strength and conditioning coach who works with the NBA Players Association and some of the professional game’s top young players.
“When you sit there on the phone and say we’re a $62,000 school, we’re in the middle of nowhere and you need a four-point-twelve (GPA) to get in, that kind of narrows it down,” Bridgeland said. “But to Whitman’s credit, we are a ridiculously tight campus. So any kid that’s looking for that looks for us. We don’t want partiers, we don’t want guys that aren’t interested in their future academically or athletically, so it kind of helps us recruit in a weird sense.”
Once Blues players arrive on campus, they are given a “big brother” on the team. They do a team retreat by the campfire at a professor’s home.
For the past month as the stakes of the games have increased, Bridgeland has cut practices to twice a week so players can study for midterms, write papers, have fewer scheduling conflicts with professor’s office hours and stay in the library until 4 a.m. if they need to. “I’m glad he gives us that time, because we really do need it,” Howell said.
“Going into the tournament, we’re like, everything matters,” Bridgeland said. “Their margin of error is ridiculous, so I’m trying to equate that with our stat breakdown and how good we’ve gotta be.”
So far this season, Whitman has been great when the margins are their narrowest. They are 4-0 against teams ranked in the top eight of the D3Hoops.com poll and won their conference title in overtime against No. 8 Whitworth. Twice they have trailed by double digits with four minutes left to play but have been unfazed, even laughing in their huddle.
Butler attributes the team’s carefree confidence to its bond and all of its mental training. “We’re kind of detached from the outcome,” he said. “What’s more important is we execute on our end. When we get down to those serious moments, it’s fun because that’s what we’re here to do.”
At Whitman, they are capable of doing a lot, outside the game and on the court. And their coach recognizes and embraces that, saying, “Division III was made for me, or I was made for it.” The point was driven home last season when the Blues lost to St. Thomas (Minn.) by 23 points in the NCAA tournament Sweet 16, the last loss this program has suffered.
“They blew us out of the water. And of course the coaches are moping back to the hotel. The kids are already there. We walk in, and they’re more or less having a food fight. They were so past the game and enjoying each other.
“If you could wish your team one thing, I would wish that they’re having a blast and that they don’t feel pressure. So that’s what we’re doing. In our team visualization before every game, we talk about being creative and enthusiastic in handling these awesome situations that we get into. I think they actually believe that, which they should.”