KenPom's 'profound' influence on the CBB betting market

A seemingly innocuous game between Maryland and Seattle in 2010 was a boon for wiseguys. Gene Sweeney Jr./Baltimore Sun/MCT/Getty Images

Not everyone recalls the Nov. 8, 2010 showdown between Maryland and Seattle University in the first round of the 2K Sports Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. But those who were really paying attention, those who were invested, remember it well.

The 2010-11 season was the first that college basketball data guru Ken Pomeroy posted preseason projections on his website KenPom.com. At the time, Pomeroy's analytics were just beginning to creep into the mainstream media, but in the college basketball betting market, he was already a known commodity for both bettors and bookmakers, who especially coveted his projections on the total points scored in a game.

Back then, there weren't totals -- also known as over/unders on the total points scored -- on every game, especially early in the season. Whenever a book did post a total on a game, if it didn't mirror Pomeroy's numbers, bettors would pounce. Oddsmakers took notice and increasingly used his projections to craft totals, including for the 2010 Maryland-Seattle game.

The Terrapins, under then coach Gary Williams, were going to play their usual up-tempo brand of basketball against an overmatched Seattle team that was a 19.5-point underdog. This game was expected to be played in the high 70s and 80s. But a glitch in Pomeroy's system produced a much-lower projected score, by some recollections, 30-40 points lower than it should have been.

The over/under at one Las Vegas sportsbook opened at 121.5. Bettors recognized the mistake quickly and repeatedly fired $500 limit bets at the errant number. With smirking wiseguys lining up, it took only two or three bets for the book to realize something was askew.

In the first hour after being posted on the oddsboard, the total grew nine points to 130.5, with the book bumping up the number several points with each sharp bet. Eventually, the glitch was corrected, and the total would close at 156.

Maryland won the game 105-76, easily cashing all the over bets by the wiseguys.

It was an otherwise unremarkable blowout with a gambling subplot, starring a former meteorologist, who unintentionally emerged as one of the biggest influences on the college basketball betting market in the past 15 years.

The small-change web domain kenpom.com cost maybe $20 in 1999. Its owner, at the time, a 20-something meteorologist with degrees in civil engineering and atmospheric science from Virginia Tech and Wyoming, respectively, had no idea what to do with his new site with the random name, based simply on the combination of his first and last names.

"It turned out pretty well," Ken Pomeroy told ESPN in a recent phone interview. "It's a concise name, kind of rhymes. A lot of people don't even know my full name, which is kind of funny."

Pomeroy initially filled his site with a mishmash of ratings for a variety of sports, including obscure ones like minor league hockey and college lacrosse. Depending on how available the data was, he updated the site only once a week at the beginning. But a 2004 Air Force basketball game changed his approach.

Pomeroy remembers TV broadcasters clamoring about the quality of Air Force's defense during a random game in the 2003-04 season. He didn't buy it, though, and thought the pace of play by the Falcons' offense was the biggest reason Air Force wasn't giving up many points. The Falcons' efficiency on defense wasn't great; they just didn't have to guard for as many possessions as other teams.

Determined to produce better analysis, Pomeroy shifted the focus of his site to college basketball exclusively in 2004. He began dedicating more time to the site, while continuing his job with the National Weather Service in Montana.

By the late 2000s, his audience had begun to grow. Coaches and gamblers were among the first to take notice. Brad Stevens, then coach at Butler, admitted that he used Pomeroy's ratings to devise game plans for the 2010 national championship game against Duke. Two years later, with basketball becoming more of a viable option financially and the opportunity to become his own boss, Pomeroy quit his job at the weather service to focus on KenPom.com.

Pomeroy is now a 43-year-old college basketball fan, based in Salt Lake City, who likes to predict outcomes, but says he doesn't gamble. He didn't even fill out a bracket for the NCAA tournament.

His ratings are derived from a proprietary algorithm, with the core centered on the Pythagorean calculation for expected winning percentage, made famous by baseball statistician Bill James. Pomeroy's formula is designed to be purely predictive, with an emphasis on margin of victory. He factors in offensive and defensive efficiency, tempo and even luck, but does not, however, take into consideration injuries or emotional factors.

Although Pomeroy does not participate in the college basketball betting market, he respects it. And that feeling is certainly mutual.

"His content is awesome. I use him a lot," said longtime Las Vegas oddsmaker Ed Salmons, a self-proclaimed Pomeroy fan who oversees college basketball for the Westgate SuperBook. "He built all of it and doesn't even gamble."

The regular-season college basketball betting market arguably has the highest overall betting acumen of any sport. And Pomeroy's projections, both margin of victory and total points, often line up closely with the numbers posted in that sharp-infested college basketball betting market. It's something he humbly accepts as a compliment, reinforcement from a billion-dollar market about the accuracy of his work.

"If you go down the line when you look at opening numbers, it's very rare you see a difference of more than a possession or so from his number," said Matt Lindeman, a sports bettor, who spent several years contributing to the oddsmaking process at Las Vegas sportsbook operator CG Technology. "That's not to say he's always right and the numbers always move toward his -- they don't -- but in general, you won't find a public source of info that is more accurate on a consistent basis."

Now, of course, Pomeroy's projections don't always match the betting markets exactly, as Lindeman noted. For example, his formula had Saint Mary's picked to beat Arizona in the second round of the NCAA tournament, while the Wildcats were as much as 5-point favorites in Las Vegas. Arizona won 69-60.

"His stuff is great," Salmons said, "but the market is still better."

Salmons remembers a time, though, when offshore sportsbooks would post the first over/unders on a college basketball game and immediately start receiving bets influenced by Pomeroy's numbers.

"As soon as they'd put the total up, you'd have all these people battling, essentially betting it toward (Pomeroy's) numbers," Salmons said.

Jared Hamby, a poker player, avid Baylor fan and experienced sports bettor, first learned of KenPom.com on message boards, when Kansas Jayhawks supporters began referencing the site. He began subscribing to the site in 2010 and quickly realized its potential for sports betting.

"I started to use (KenPom.com) as a tool to compare with the opening lines to see if there was any value," said Hamby, who applied Pomeroy's ratings during a time when he was betting $5,000 and $10,000 a game and was "looking to make large amounts betting."

"But you can't really do that anymore, because KenPom is kind of baked into the opening lines now."

As Pomeroy's popularity increased -- he's now regularly referenced by mainstream college basketball analysts -- the edge that his numbers used to provide bettors has been reduced.

Even though the edge betting Pomeroy's numbers against the market appears to have been reduced or even eliminated altogether, his impact remains clear. One professional handicapper, who has been active in the college basketball market for a decade and works for a respected betting syndicate, characterized Pomeroy's influence as "profound."

"(He's) the single biggest influencer of the college basketball market in the last decade, and probably ever," the bettor said.