May 12, 2014 by Max Meyer
By Max Meyer
“I think film is the best way to learn about your opponent. But, Synergy and all of these analytics and advanced statistics help uncover that information and confirm what you see. Sometimes, it even helps with what you don’t see, because you simply just can’t watch all the games.”
USC basketball student manager Cy Behzadi has arguably made the biggest impact in bringing the analytics revolution over to Trojan hoops. USC was not taking any initiative towards studying analytics to improve their play on the court, even though they had a Synergy Sports account. Synergy is a tool that all of the NBA and more than 80 percent of men’s college basketball uses that combines video analysis and advances statistics to analyze multiple aspects of a player’s game.
Using the team’s Synergy account and basketball-reference.com, Behzadi created four analytics preparation packets for games against Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Oregon State, which took an in-depth look at each player on the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses. As an example, we took a look at the scouting report for Oregon State point guard Roberto Nelson. Nelson was one of the top offensive threats in the Pac-12 last season, and Behzadi wanted to take a look at how he was scoring before USC took on Oregon State on January 30th.
Nelson was scoring 1.171 PPP (points per possession) from beyond the three-point line, while only accumulating .741 PPP from 17 feet or closer, showing that he was a more effective scorer from the outside than closer to the basket. He averaged .776 PPP on pick and roll plays when the defense committed to him, while he tallied 1.292 PPP on isolation plays. It also showed that he was a weaker player driving to the left (.727 PPP) versus to the right (1 PPP).
These numbers were telling, as it gave USC clear statistical evidence on how to properly defend each player and how to play to their weaknesses. Yet, he stopped creating the packets after those four games because of the lack of interest from the coaching staff.
“[Assistant coach] Tony Bland found them really useful. He thought that the packets gave us what these guys were doing on the court, and wanted them for his scouts. While Tony was warm and receptive to them, Coach [Andy] Enfield had a little convincing to do,” explained Behzadi. “These things took me like six hours. If they had asked though, I would have done more in a second. I would have been more than happy to do our self-reports throughout the season and at the end of the year. But I’m not sure that there was really a demand for it from Coach Enfield. I think eventually he’ll come around on it.”
“I’ve coached in the NBA and at other places. In the NBA, [sports analytics] are used a little more than in college. But, I know a lot of coaches that do study it and we do our share as well,” said Coach Enfield. “Analytics don’t win games for you though, you have to go out and play to beat the other team.”
But why is there such a discrepancy between professional sports teams and amateur athletics regarding the use of sports analytics? One of the biggest reasons is money. SportVU, a new technology developed by STATS, is a prime example. SportVU contains multiple cameras on a basketball court and the cameras track every single movement, from each player to the ball itself, on the court throughout the entire game. Yet, while every team in the NBA has SportVU and the data that comes with it, only three collegiate basketball teams (Duke, Louisville and Marquette) can afford to have the same access.
“The availability of data and the overall increased interest in the sports themselves are probably the main reasons pro sports have the advantage [with analytics],” said Dr. Jeremy Abramson via email, a professor who teaches the only sports analytics class at USC. “Baseball box scores go back 100 years, and technologies like SportVU and PitchFX allow for analysis that the college game can’t hope to match [yet].”
That doesn’t mean though that most college basketball teams avoid analytics all together. Behzadi mentioned that Arizona had a single guy that was crunching down the advanced statistics for Sean Miller. When Brad Stevens coached at Butler, he had a well-known analytics assistant that would give him reports.
Professional sports teams, however, have the financial capacity to hire more people that can translate the data that these technological services provide to make it more understandable to front offices, coaches and players to give them an advantage on the court and in personnel decisions. Second Spectrum is a company that does just that, and was even formed at USC. They’ve won several accolades for their work, including the Best Research Paper Award at the 2012 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference with their paper on trying to figure out where a rebound will land after a shot attempt on different spots around the court.
Second Spectrum reached out to USC basketball when the group was just starting out, but an agreement between the two never came to fruition. Now, Second Spectrum has quite a few NBA clients, with USC’s analytics department nowhere in the same vicinity. Second Spectrum CEO and Co-Founder Rajiv Maheswaran believes that a similar process like all NBA teams acquiring SportVU to eliminate competitive advantages will happen in college basketball as well.
“There are some college teams using this technology right now. But what will start happening is leagues will start getting it,” proclaimed Maheswaran as he was speaking in Dr. Abramson’s class. “So the ACC will get it, Big 10 will get it, Pac-12 will get it. I have no doubt that within five years that tracking cameras will be everywhere in college.”
With Second Spectrum and a sports analytics class in their backyard, why hasn’t USC been a team that has been leading this mathematical athletics revolution? Seeing that the Trojans went 11-21 this past season, could they have used analytics more consistently during the season for their game plans? Another factor to consider is if the players are capable and willing to learn the information and use it on the court. Many college basketball players already have hours committed each day to practice and schoolwork, so would they want to spend additional time looking over their opponent’s metrics?
“I think when you get to this level, that [studying analytics] is part of the game. I think that if you’re not a student of the game, you won’t be successful,” said former USC basketball player Byron Wesley. “Every time I step on the court, I know where their players want to shoot from. When you know your opponent and their strengths and their weaknesses, it makes for an easier game.”
Studying and creating game plans revolving around analytics take a lot of time though. With coaches having to worry about practice, recruiting and scouting, it’s tough to add another major sector on their plates. But, with the USC Sports Analytics Collective being formed earlier this year and Dr. Abramson discussing with the Viterbi School of Engineering about adding a sports analytics minor, it seems that Coach Enfield can hire a few student volunteers to help them with their analytics department in the near future.
“Personally, I don’t see a reason why you wouldn’t want this information. What’s the harm? You’re starting to see that the top programs are utilizing analytics to benefit them,” said Behzadi. “I think it would be really prudent for us to do the same thing.”