By Paul Gabrielsen, senior science writer, University Marketing and Communications
It’s probably in your inbox already – the invitation to join your teenage nephew’s March Madness bracket challenge. Favorite methods for picking winning teams abound – some people pick by uniform color, some by geography, some by which mascot could devour the other.
If your preferred method is statistics, however, University of Utah senior Sean Sloan can help. Sloan is a mathematics major by day, but by night, or at least any night that the Utah Jazz play at home, he’s a basketball operations intern at Vivint Smart Home Arena. As a part of the Jazz’ analytics team, Sloan helps track players’ movements during games using a camera network above the arena, which helps calculate player statistics for each game. Front office and coaching staff then use the statistics to assess areas of weakness and strength, both for individual players and for the team as a whole.
In the college basketball world, the “godfather” of stats, in Sloan’s words, is Salt Lake City resident Ken Pomeroy. Pomeroy’s website, kenpom.com, displays an array of statistics for NCAA Division I college basketball teams that goes far beyond simple wins and losses. “He tries to factor out wins and losses and dive deeper into it,” Sloan says of Pomeroy. “A lot of it is efficiency.”
Sloan explains what the Pomeroy numbers mean. Adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies are the number of points scored or allowed, respectively, per 100 possessions. Adjusted tempo, or the number of possessions per 40 minutes of play, is a measure of a team’s speed. A low tempo is not necessarily bad, Sloan says. “If your pace is slow, you shouldn’t be hurt if you don’t score a lot of points because you can still be very efficient.” An example is the University of Virginia, dead last in terms of tempo. But their defense is the stingiest among Division I teams. “They may not score a lot, but they can hold teams to a low amount of points,” Sloan says.
Other stats on the site summarize opponents’ efficiency, which forms the basis of a team’s strength of schedule. All the numbers together are rolled into an adjusted efficiency rating, which forms the basis of Pomeroy’s rankings. Sloan isn’t sure what Pomeroy’s “Luck rating” represents, but could relate to a team’s success in close games.
When making his bracket picks, Sloan looks at the numbers (“I do a lot of KenPom,” he says) but also relies on what he sees during games. He looks at position matchups, and how many three-point shots a team takes. “A team lives or dies by the three-point line. If a team shoots a lot of threes, they could have an off night. But if a team gets hot. . .” Teams on a roll in their conference tournaments can often carry that momentum into the NCAA tournament, Sloan says, but adds that 2016 champion Villanova lost the Big East conference championship. “So I don’t know if that’s a good criteria to stick by!”
For people who haven’t been following basketball as closely – or at all – Sloan suggests to start with looking at a team’s overall efficiency, and then to look at individual matchups. In a hypothetical game between UCLA and Virginia, for example, Virginia’s decent offense would be paired up against UCLA’s inefficient defense. Plus, Virginia’s slow tempo could curtail UCLA’s fast-paced offense. “If Virginia can score on them and keep up, that’s their chance.” Sloan says.
In the end, however, numbers can’t predict the randomness inherent in every game. Sloan’s advice for not getting upset at upsets: “Be bold. Don’t be afraid to pick an upset. There’s no better feeling than picking a 13 seed to beat a 4 seed. You think ‘I’m the best! I can predict anything!’ If you like that team, keep picking them! Who’s to say that they don’t make it to the Final Four?”
So set aside the dartboard and remember that no bracket is going to be perfect. “Pick a lot of upsets, try to make it enjoyable,” Sloan says. “Have fun with it.”