BACK TO THE BASKET: THE WEEKLY FORECAST
Originally Published: Feb 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."

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.

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...

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