Originally Published: February 25, 2013

College basketball's version of 'Moneyball'

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

Ken Pomeroy needs just 30 minutes per day to tinker with numbers that ignore conventional wisdom and rebut tradition. The meteorologist-turned-stats-guru completes the necessary updates to the efficiency module that feeds his popular website, KenPom.com, in the time it takes to view your favorite TV show.

Yet, the devoted -- including many Division I coaches -- come to his stat hub with pen, paper and checkbook in hand. It has become a financially lucrative effort for Pomeroy, who recently quit his job as a local weatherman in Salt Lake City.

"Mainly, it was the concept of just evaluating teams or players based on the opportunities that they had to do things," Pomeroy told ESPN.com about the origins of his site. "The efficiency stuff comes out of this."

Jim Larranaga
University of Miami photographer JC Ridley Veteran coach Jim Larranaga has been preaching about the virtue of advanced stats for years now.

Today, men and women tether mini-tablets to their other tablets. They have cellphones that essentially double as portable laptops. Their cars park themselves. And with one "Harlem Shake" video, they can attain worldwide fame in a matter of minutes through YouTube.

We're not quite "The Jetsons" yet, but we're close. It is within this technological renaissance that Pomeroy and others like him began to ponder the possibilities of a merger years ago.

What if we beefed up the typical stat sheet by using computer code and various formulas as filters? Would we learn more about the 340-plus teams that compete at the Division I level? Would we think differently about players and programs as a result?

The game has not reached a consensus on college basketball's version of "Moneyball," advanced stats, yet. But the list of cosigning coaches grows by the day -- and they're all faced with similar predicaments. Should they consult numbers, game film or both when preparing for opponents?

KenPom.com is just one of the stats-on-steroids tools available on the free market. Sagarin has been on the scene for years. Synergy Sports Technology offers mind-blowing stat breakdowns of players and possessions. ESPN unveiled the Basketball Power Index last season. The BPI, like the RPI, is a measuring stick of a team's value. Unlike the RPI, it accounts for a team's wins and losses when it's missing one or more of its best players.

Statistician Dean Oliver, who helped create the BPI as a member of the ESPN Analytics team, has played a vital role in modernizing the per-possession system. Oliver says that a team's ability to get to the free throw line, its effective field goal percentage (which gives teams/players more credit for 3-point shots since they're worth more points), the number of available rebounds it secures and its turnover rate are the four most significant factors in whether it wins or loses any given game. They're the same four factors KenPom.com uses to assess teams.

Arizona coach Sean Miller trusts those numbers.

"The simplifying of statistics helps you coach your team and helps you be more accurate in the things you know you're doing well and also the things that you aren't doing well," Miller said on last week's Pac-12 media teleconference. "[KenPom.com] … from my perspective, that's the story of your team."

UCLA coach Ben Howland, however, relies on his eye.

"I put way more stock in the film and watch what people are doing," he said on the same teleconference. "But obviously we're looking at percentages of different personnel from the other team and what they do as a team. So it's a combination."

Even for nonbelieving coaches, the detailed advanced stats systems supply their staffs with useful information. For some of them, it's just another device that's occasionally considered as they seek an edge each night.

For others, it's everything.

A few weeks ago, Jim Larranaga told Kenny Kadji to wait for the trap.

As the Miami coach analyzed Synergy-produced footage of Virginia, he noticed that the Cavaliers loved to trap bigs in the post as soon as they were fed. So Kadji anticipated the pressure and chose passing over panicking.

He found Reggie Johnson for a jumper in the first half and another in the second during a 54-50 win.

"We knew they were going to trap Kenny," Larranaga said.

According to Larranaga, per-possession stat tracking commenced long before the Internet made it easier to process the data. When he was an assistant at Virginia in the 1980s, he sought trends on the success opponents had with different lineups.

He said he had an interest in evaluating data when he was a player. And as a young coach, he just wanted to be ready for every opponent. So it was a natural connection.

Smith
AP PhotoDean Smith was tracking per-possessions numbers long before it was a trendy thing to do.

"It goes back to 'The Art of War' by Sun Tzu, which says, 'If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat,'" Larranaga said.

Although he's probably the only coach who quotes a book written in 500 B.C. to articulate the value of advanced stats, he wasn't the first to realize their value.

Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith began utilizing per-possession numbers in the 1960s. He's credited as the pioneer. So even though various websites and online services have popularized advanced stats and given laymen access to the information, it is not new. Its accessibility in 2013, however, allows a level of implementation that past generations could not have imagined.

"We use it a lot, every day really, during the season for our scouting efforts and to paint a picture of who people are," said Eric Konkol, an assistant for a Miami team that tracks points per possession on a specific scoreboard in practices.

On Saturday, the then-No. 2 Hurricanes played a Wake Forest team that's ranked 116th by Ken Pomeroy, 115th by the BPI and 135th by the RPI. And these ratings were posted after the Demon Deacons scored an 80-65 upset of the Hurricanes over the weekend.

This is a Wake team that has suffered losses against Iona and Nebraska. The squad is ranked ninth in the ACC in 3-point shooting (32.4 percent). But the Deacons went 7-for-12 from beyond the arc against the Hurricanes. Codi Miller-McIntyre shot 3-for-12 from the field in two previous games. But he scored 15 points and hit 75 percent of his attempts (6-for-8) against Miami.

"The biggest thing that is scariest about stats is that it doesn't necessarily judge what a person's capable of, it judges what they normally do," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "And I think that's something that you have to weigh because we all know that in basketball, there are certain days when a guy that hasn't made a shot for a month starts feeling better about himself. And he makes two or three in a row. You've got to be able to adjust on the fly. You have to have a good idea about what somebody's capable of but also what they normally do from a trend standpoint."

Even with today's computerized precision, numbers are not perfect. Saturday's Wake Forest-Miami matchup proved as much.

It's college basketball, a sport that's fueled by unpredictability. That's why March Madness continues to flourish. The unexpected is attractive.

But it can be a nightmare for coaching staffs that peruse the data in search of an advantage. The multitude of information doesn't always help, either.

Herb Sendek
Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY SportsLike many coaches, Herb Sendek takes a cautious approach to overloading his staff and players with advanced stats.

"Sometimes, if you get too much information it could have the reverse effect," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "It could diminish your clarity. So you try to focus on perhaps a few key stats that point out what's most important. You certainly don't want to overburden your players or your coaches for that matter. And at the same time, you have to prepare. … You just try to discern the best you can."

Yet, many would rather have it than coach without it.

The day could come -- soon -- where per-possession information supplied by intellectual hoops fans such as Pomeroy replaces the typical box score and becomes widely accepted as the info that most accurately describes a team's or player's performance. Coaches aren't waiting.

Some have already created their own internal KenPom-like stat systems. "We don't use outside statistics. We have our own statistical data we use for scouting," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "We don't depend on outside statistics because what we look at from a scouting standpoint is totally different."

The coaches who say that they're opposed to advanced stats, however, often employ someone who is intrigued by the data. "To this day, there are coaches who say, 'I just want my guys to play hard,' but usually now that same head coach has a bright young assistant who's contacting me or somebody like me," said John Gasaway, a writer for ESPN Insider and author of Basketball Prospectus.

Stevens said he would create an entire stat division for his program if he had the resources.

"I think that'd be a great asset to any program," he said.

Imagine that. A group of numbers-crunchers committed to helping a specific college basketball team win. That's nearly as bizarre as an ex-weatherman changing the statistical current within college basketball in 30 minutes or less each day. "Pretty amazing, huh?" Pomeroy said.

THE RUNDOWN

Numbers to consider

Memphis: The Tigers are riding an 18-game winning streak, tied with Akron as the nation's longest active winning streak. Josh Pastner's program possesses the athleticism to run with any team in the country (38th in adjusted tempo per Pomeroy). The Tigers are clearly the class of Conference USA. But their turnover issues could be their downfall once March Madness begins. They've committed turnovers on 21.3 percent of their possession, 240th in the country. Remember that when you pick Memphis to make a run in the Big Dance.

Minnesota: The RPI loves the Gophers, even though Tubby Smith's program has lost eight of its past 11 games. They've lost their past two games by a combined 47 points. But they have a top-20 RPI. That's because they're facing quality teams most nights in the Big Ten. And they have the nation's top strength of schedule, per RPI. This squad hasn't played like a tourney team since early January. But a team with that RPI, 12 victories over top-100 teams and wins over Michigan State, Illinois (in Champaign), Memphis and Wisconsin will stay in the mix. However, the Gophers haven't done anything recently to suggest that they'll finally win a game in the Big Dance under Smith.

Stanford: Johnny Dawkins might be lucky to get into the NIT at this point. But the Pac-12's best have been hot and cold all season. So the conference tourney in Las Vegas next month could be interesting. And a team such as Stanford -- with wins over Oregon, Arizona State and Cal -- could spring an upset or two. Its 3-point shooting could prove to be critical in Las Vegas. Overall, Stanford is seventh in the Pac-12 with a 34.3 percent clip from beyond the arc. In conference play, however, the Cardinal have been the Pac-12's best from the 3-point line (41.1 percent).

VCU: The "HAVOC" defense has led Shaka Smart's program to the top of the Atlantic 10. It's no surprise that the Rams lead the nation with 12.07 steals per game. That's more than a steal per game difference over Southern Miss, which is second in the country with 10.89 per contest. Those numbers are even more impressive when churned through Pomeroy's per-possession quadrant. Smart's program is first in the country with a 17.4 steals percentage.

Indiana: The Hoosiers are one of the nation's top two 3-point shooting teams. Their 42.8 percent mark from the 3-point line is tied with that of Weber State. Tom Crean's squad is so difficult to contain outside because it's stacked with players at different positions who can hit the shot. The 6-foot-9 Christian Watford (49 percent) has range. Victor Oladipo can slash to the rim with the best of them, but he's also Indiana's top 3-point shooter (51.1 percent). And you obviously don't want to lose Jordan Hulls in transition because he'll burn you, too (48.9 percent). In all, the Hoosiers have six players who are connecting on at least 35 percent of their 3-point attempts. Yes, they're one of the two most accurate teams from the 3-point line. And they're also the most versatile.

Florida: The Gators are ranked second in the BPI, even after suffering last week's road loss to Missouri. Florida earned a No. 5 ranking in last week's Associated Press poll and will probably drop. But Florida forward Will Yeguete (21.9 minutes per game, 6.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.1 SPG) has missed Florida's past five games as he recovers from knee surgery. The 6-7 forward missed all but the first minute of Florida's 80-69 loss at Arkansas on Feb. 5. That's important, because Yeguete could return soon, and this Florida team hasn't lost one SEC game with him at 100 percent. The Gators are so high in the BPI in part because the barometer gives teams credit for margin of victory. And few squads have matched Florida's overall dominance in 2012-13.

The Weekly Forecast

By Myron Medcalf | ESPN.com

A quick look at the temperature of college basketball as we head into a new week:

Bears

Hot: Cal has won five in a row after Saturday's 60-59 victory at Oregon State. With a 10-5 record, the Bears are just a game behind Pac-12 leaders Arizona and Oregon with three games to play. So yes, there's still a chance, especially in the unpredictable Pac-12.

Cold: Montana's Grizzlies suffered their second loss in three games when they were defeated by Davidson in overtime on Saturday. But that wasn't their most significant loss. Senior Will Cherry aggravated a foot injury that sidelined him for a chunk of the nonconference season. Last weekend, the Grizzlies lost leading scorer Mathias Ward to a foot injury. The injuries certainly jeopardize Montana's chances of a representing the Big Sky in the Big Dance.

Streaks

Hot: Middle Tennessee. The Blue Raiders have a top-30 RPI and a win over Ole Miss. But they've also lost head-to-head battles against Akron and Belmont, who have played their way into similar at-large scenarios, and they suffered a conference loss at Arkansas State on Jan. 3. There are no guarantees for this program without a Sun Belt tournament title. But they've won 14 in a row, and three of their past four victories were by 31 points or more. Still, they're the only top-130 (RPI) squad in the conference.

Cold: Grambling. The Tigers have three more regular-season opportunities to earn their first win of 2012-13. They've lost their first 24 games of the year and 15 straight in the SWAC.

Feet

Hot: Michigan State's Derrick Nix has made gradual improvements throughout his career, even as he's battled to maintain a solid playing weight. Right now, the 6-9, 270-pound forward is one of the best bigs in the Big Ten. That's mostly due to his work ethic and his footwork, which has been stellar all year. He seems more agile than he's ever been.

Cold: Oregon has managed to maintain its first-place slot in the Pac-12 (the Ducks are tied with Arizona at 11-4) even though point guard Dominic Artis has missed the past nine games with a foot injury. He could return in the coming weeks, even days. And they need him and they need him healthy. Right now, Oregon leads the Pac-12 with 14.5 turnovers per game in conference play. Per Pomeroy, they've committed turnovers on 21.8 percent of their possessions (270th in the nation).

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