As basketball continues to evolve into more analytical facets, Sacred Heart's Jessica Mannetti is one of several coaches looking further inside the numbers to assist in game planning. (Photo by Ray Floriani/Daly Dose Of Hoops)
By Ray Floriani (@rfloriani)
Timeout is called. Prior to meeting with the team, the head and assistant coaches huddle. Assistants provide data that has been charted. The head coach takes it all in, processing as the precious seconds tick. Finally, a decision is made and the staff addresses the group before sending them on the floor.
It is a scene happening several times a game. There has been a change, though: A big change at that.
In the not too distant past, the information jotted on the clipboards included points for and against since the last timeout, who is in foul trouble, remaining timeouts and possibly a breakdown of scoring (for and allowed) by defense. Today, that information is much more complex. Teams will approach the numbers from an analytic and efficiency orientation. Said assistant may, or should among other items, have information on the most effective out-of-bounds play, citing offensive efficiency as evidence. The numbers game is very much in vogue.
Less than a decade back, those tracking efficiency and similar analytics were considered ‘stat nerds.’ Well, the nerds have taken over with a big bang, to pardon the expression. Programs want an edge. The numbers are considered a means to that end. At the recent Northeast Conference media day, the women’s programs were queried regarding the use of advanced statistics and analytics. Of the schools we talked with, each did use tempo-free numbers and/or analytics.
The tempo-free movement began over half a century ago. A young coach by the name of Dean Smith felt scoring averages and defense were misleading because teams often played at a varying pace. Smith devised a formula to measure points per possession, a better judge of how efficient and proficient a team was.
In the early 2000s Dean Oliver published his excellent ‘Basketball on Paper,’ a bible for those studying the numbers of the game. Shortly after, Basketball Prospectus was a leading online site that also published several college annuals. For over the last decade, we have been enlightened by the work of Ken Pomeroy and his must see KenPom site.
Fan sites of a number of college teams have utilized tempo-free, so much to the extent preseason primer is no longer a requisite. Fans know turnover rate, how it is computed and interpreted. Analytics has become a bit more recent. Players are tracked and data can be broken down by offensive or defensive set, for instance. Analytics is more involved on studying teams rather than individuals. Synergy Sports Technology puts out a website a number of schools subscribe to.
Plus-minus. It simply takes the points scored minus the points allowed while you are on the floor. Some swear by it. Others swear at it. The reasoning is if you are on a good team, you should have a positive plus-minus. Conversely, those on a poor team, no matter how extensive their contributions, are often doomed to be in the red.
Heather Jacobs, Wagner’s new head coach, realizes this. Despite her feelings on plus-minus shortcomings, Jacobs does see it being used in another way. “You can look at rotations,” Jacobs said. “You can get an idea which group is most effective.” While calling the tempo-free movement and all its features ‘pretty cool,’ she is careful what to use. “We want analytics and tempo-free to show our players to value the ball.” In that end, possessions, turnovers and the accompanying turnover rate are paramount. Jacobs embraces analytics with a caution. “We don’t want the numbers to be over bearing,” she said. “We want to keep it as simple as possible for our players.”
Jessica Mannetti is another one not particularly in favor of plus-minus. The Sacred Heart mentor feels there are better ways to measure an individual’s performance. From her perspective, Mannetti is more concerned with team measurements.
“In our system, we like to push the ball and play at a faster tempo,” Mannetti said. “We are looking at points per possession and breaking things down from a half-court versus transition offense, in other words, what is our efficiency in each case.” Turnovers, or their minimizing them, are studied closely. Told the turnover rate cutoff was 20 percent (over that is not offensively acceptable,) Mannetti countered. “We can accept just a little over that 20 percent rate. With our pace, we have more possessions and some margin of error.”
Scouting the opposition is a valuable part of tempo-free and analytic breakdowns. LIU Brooklyn’s Stephanie Oliver utilizes numbers to closely monitor the turnover rate and offensive rebounding percentage of her club and the opposition. The second-year LIU mentor is one apt to employ the numbers to study her own club a lot more closely.
“You can really see more things about your team,” Oliver stated. “The breakdowns can tell you what out-of-bounds plays are working better (by efficiency totals) and even where your own players’ scoring tendencies lie. Watching and observing are important naturally, but the numbers can uncover much more.”
“I love it,” Saint Francis University coach Joe Haigh enthusiastically declared when asked about tempo-free studies.”We chart possessions and study the efficiency of each offense we run.” Haigh takes it further, providing his club with offensive and defensive efficiency numbers for each game. He proudly notes the Red Flash in conference play last season, for the first time in several years, had a higher offensive efficiency than that allowed on their defensive end. “The numbers prove a point. We want to limit turnovers and get more shots than our opponents. Players see the turnover rate and offensive rebounding percentage, they get a point of reference. The numbers are so helpful. They are great when you want to make a point.”
At FDU, Pete Cinella is utilizing the Synergy website to devise a plan. Cinella lost inside threat Erika Livermore and a good penetrating guard, Kelsey Cruz, to graduation. Points in the paint may be more difficult to come by for the Knights, so Cinella is studying the trends of teams, college and pro, that utilize the three-pointer. He is looking into three-point success and its relation to offensive efficiency. During the season, Cinella constantly consults with Synergy. “We look at our offensive efficiency per play,” he said. “We study opposition efficiency and we look at our own efficiency versus man and zone, on offense and defense.” Synergy is a tool used in practice quite frequently. “It helps my game,” FDU’s Brianna Thomas, a redshirt senior forward, said. “I look at how I am doing against defenses, and what areas improvement is needed.”
Beryl Piper of Central Connecticut State also uses Synergy. Her emphasis is centered on the assist/turnover ratio. “We compare each game in that category,” she said. “We want to know if we were outrebounded and who we were able to outrebound. Beyond numbers, Synergy can give us reasons why.” Synergy has also given Piper insights not available just a few years back. “You can study the fast break and find how less efficient you may be if you need more than one (pass) reversal in transition. This is interesting, and the players really buy into these ideas.”
There is no magic formula guaranteeing a potential conference cellar dweller will cut down the nets come March. Nor is there an equation, duly followed, that will lead to a big upset. If there were, UConn’s opponents would like to hear of it.
Each of the six coaches in the discussion embraced advanced statistics and analytics. Interestingly, their orientation was similar, but specific needs and uses varied with their individual program. What analytics, tempo-free, whatever the term utilized, can do is get your team as prepared as best able. The ability to put your players in the best possible position to maximize their strengths and minimize deficiencies can be achieved. That is the essence of coaching, as good a reason as any why more coaches are enthusiastically buying into the numbers and analytics these days.