The Analytics Uprising Is Upon College Basketball: How It Could Alter the Sport

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 27, 2018

Nebraska head coach Tim Miles
Nebraska head coach Tim MilesCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

An entire world of information is at our fingertips. Or if you have Siri, Alexa, Google Home or one of the many other voice-activated personal assistants on the market, you don't even need fingers. Just think your questions out loud, and you'll get answers almost instantaneously.

But if you're a college basketball coach in the middle of a game, none of that 21st-century technology is available to you. The athletic department prints out box scores during media timeouts, and that's all you get.

Good luck making meaningful halftime or mid-game adjustments with that archaic dispersion of information.

Thanks to ShotTracker, though, that might be changing sooner rather than later.

According to the home page of its website, "ShotTracker is a sensor-based system that automatically captures statistical and performance analytics for an entire team in real-time." Those sensors placed strategically in the ball, on the players and throughout the arena track the movement of the game and instantly relay it all to an app.

"The simplest way I put it is think of this as indoor GPS," co-founder and COO of ShotTracker Davyeon Ross told Bleacher Report. "Just imagine the opportunity to be able to track ball and player at 120 times per second within centimeter accuracy.

"When you look at a box score, it gives you the result, but it doesn't necessarily give you the path to get there. For instance, when I look at the scorecard for my golf game, it may say I have a par, but it doesn't tell you I hit the first one out of bounds and then luckily chipped one in from 140 yards. A box score just doesn't show you the runs. It doesn't give you all the things that are critical in the game or how it really went."

But ShotTracker can.

Nebraska wing Isaac Copeland Jr.
Nebraska wing Isaac Copeland Jr.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press/Associated Press

It all sounds like a too-good-to-be-true technology straight out of an episode of Black Mirror, but it's already here. Nebraska, LSU and most of the Big 12 schools already have ShotTracker set up in their men's practice facilities, and that data revolution is quickly spreading.

The practice environment will perhaps always be where this technology provides the most added value. In a game, one could conceivably watch ball and player movement and keep tabs on whether a foul, pass or field-goal attempt was a good one. But when you have 20 players and more than a dozen basketballs spread out around multiple hoops at a practice, it's impossible to track everything.

Well, it used to be.

"In practices, we use [ShotTracker] just for raw data to accumulate our stats for individual players," Nebraska head coach Tim Miles said. "It helps us get a feel for where our strengths and weaknesses are."

And in a giant leap for advanced analytics, ShotTracker was enabled for live-game action in last week's Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City, Missouri, at Sprint Center.

Miles put that immediately available data to good use in the opener against Missouri State.

"We talked about ball movement with our team at halftime," Miles said. "To be able to show them the stats that said: 'Hey, we're getting not even half a point per possession when we make two passes or less, and we've done that 19 times. That's bad offense.' And then to show them when we're making three or more passes, we're well over a point per possession.

"Instead of coaches barking at you for another reason, you've got the information right there. [We made] adjustments we'd hope to make anyway, but I think the raw data just confirmed the points we were trying to get across to our guys."

Tim Miles
Tim MilesRich Schultz/Getty Images

Can't very well relay that type of message with a piece of paper that shows basic stats like assists and rebounds. And Nebraska was a much better team in the second half because of it. The Cornhuskers led by just three points with two minutes remaining in the first half, but they cruised to a 23-point victory, scoring at a much more efficient rate after those adjustments.

For the nerdy coachesa term I use with love, given my degree in applied mathematics and my former life as a data analyst—this could be a major difference-maker. 

For now, though, this was a one-time deal. ShotTracker had to request a waiver from the NCAA to break the rule prohibiting the use of cellphones and tablets on the benches during games. But the tech company has aspirations of being in every Division I arena within the next 18-24 months.

At that point, we might see iPads on college basketball benches just like we see Microsoft Surface Pros on the NFL sidelines all the time.

Mileswho added that Nebraska already has a three-man analytics department for putting together and using advanced stats—would love it if this became a permanent fixture in college basketball.

"I think it should be available for those that want to make it available," Miles said. "It improves the game, and it improves it equally between the two teams. To me, that's fair game. [Our opponents] can use it any way they want to, even though they might not have it in their home gym. As I look at it, what's the problem with making the game better?

"I think there are some real simple numbers that you can get in real time that really matter to the outcome of the game, and there's no reason that we shouldn't be able to provide that to our guys."

The applications for coaches are obvious. But if and when it does get implemented at a national level, it will be interesting to see how it affects the sport outside of the locker room.

NBA teams will always want boots on the ground, so to speak, but the scouting industry could change drastically because of this technology. And data-driven writers, analysts and commentators would have something better and more rapidly available than box scores, play-by-play logs and tempo-free statistics to both research and relay information.

The NCAA tends to move at a glacial speed with everything, but it's possible that the way we watch and digest college basketball could change in a revolutionary way within the next few years.

                                                    

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.

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