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Q + A with WFU Sports Analytics about Wake Basketball & Statistics

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Hear what the leaders of the WFU Sports Analytics Club have to say about the sabermetrics revolution and on Wake Forest basketball.

In 1969, Edwin Star's counter-culture hit "WAR. What is it good for, absolutely nothing" became the heartbeat of a revolution. In 2015, WAR is the spearhead of another revolution. But this time, it's good for more than absolutely nothing.

WAR, or better known as Wins Above Replacement, is the leading statistic in the MLB to fully determine a players value. It incorporates batting statistics, base running ability and even uses cameras and graphs to calculate a player's range on defense.

While baseball was first to the plate, basketball has quickly adapted its own version of sabermetrics with PER (Player Efficiency Rating). Here at BSD, Ken Pomeroy has become our savant due to his extensive research and analysis on college basketball. (Currently, Wake Forest ranks 94th in KenPom's rankings. The Deacs are one of only four teams under .500 in the Top 100 #moralvictories.)

While there are copious amounts of data available, some fans and former players alike still do not grasp how numbers can alter an on-field outcome (See: Charles Barkley rant). Many others throw around sports analytics terms and numbers without fully understanding what they mean.

For this reason, we brought in members of Wake Forest's Sports Analytics Club (President Zachary Missan and Chief Editor Adam Yudelman) to decipher the fallacies and the future of the industry. And, of course, to discuss some Demon Deacon basketball.

1. In the Spring of 2013, what was the inspiration for the Sports Analytics Club?

Zach: Dr. Todd McFall’s First Year Seminar, Economics in Sports, was the catalyst for creating the Sports Analytics Club. He showed us that sports analytics was revolutionizing the sports world, and that we could be a part of it. Over the course of the Summer of 2013, we created a plan to bring a club to the school. We wanted to allow Wake Forest students to have an opportunity to pursue their passions in sports, possibly leading to a career in sports.

2. What are the end goals that you want the 20+ members to take away?

Adam: We want this club to be a medium for students pursuing anything about sports. We want them to develop their critical thinking skills, their research skills, and their ability to communicate their ideas. Most of all, we want them to enjoy their time analyzing sports. The world is making a large push into data driven analytics, and this is a place to hone the skills necessary to be successful. Members can choose how much work to put into this club, and the more work they put into this, the more it will benefit them.

3. Describe some of the challenges that sabermetricians face by trying to translate a visual game into tangible numbers?

Z: One of the most prevalent difficulties is that it is almost impossible to put aspects such as effort, leadership, and determination into numbers. There is also an issue of translating the individual styles of players into statistics, such as a pitcher throwing sidearm or the mechanics of a basketball player’s shot. Also, there is a great amount of friction among the older generation of sports decision makers in shifting to sports analytics. They simply want to use the eye test to interpret what they see. While it is true that there are some things that only your eyes can tell you, using statistics can help you understand how effective players and teams are. Sports analytics are not perfect, but they help us learn more about sports than ever before.

4. Sports analytics have taken a huge step to the forefront. Now almost every team in all four major sports employs sabermetrics to produce more efficient in-game strategy and roster management. As it is already widely used, where does sports analytics go from here?

A: With SportsVU player tracking in the NBA and other tracking services being implemented in MLB, NHL, and the NFL, there is no lack of data for in-game strategy and player value quantification. Right now the next step is weeding through all of the data for something meaningful. We can measure how many dribbles a player takes before hoisting up a shot, but is this important? Moreover, I think the most difficult step is translating the numbers into a format that players and coaches will understand and find meaning from. You only need to watch Charles Barkley’s comments on analytics to see potential resistance, so if you can convert the data into something that doesn’t scream "nerds and numbers", we should see greater acceptance by those who actually play the games.

5. Will we ever see a world where sports are overly analytical, and thus, inefficient? For example, where teams shoot too many threes that it becomes an inefficient outcome.

Z: That is a very real possibility unless the limitations of sports analytics are identified. Let’s look at the example of teams shooting too many threes. Just because it has been shown to be more efficient than a mid-range one might lead teams to abandon it, basically becoming a more extreme version of the Houston Rockets. But when teams do not have to worry about a mid-range shot, they are free to only protect the paint and the three point line. Now the offense has limited options which will be well defended. The way efficiency and all other statistics are calculated is given the current climate of the way the sport is played. Once playing styles change, the efficiency of certain strategies changes. We likely will see this overly analytical sports world arrive in the near future. But when teams see the results, they will do things to become more efficient. Analytics help, but teams need to be careful not to rely on them excessively.

6. This is a Wake sports site so let's talk some Demon Deacons... In Year 1, Danny Manning has proven that he likes to run and gun. Compare and contrast his offensive style and efficiency to Jeff Bzdelik's.

A: Manning has made an effort to push the ball more this season, so the Deacs are now averaging just over 70 possessions a game (28th in the nation) compared to last year’s 67.6 possessions. That said, their eFG% has dropped from 49.8% to 48.2%, but I think that can be attributed to our increase in 3pt attempts for a roster that isn’t quite shaped for that type of offense. Wake is still getting to the free throw line at a top 30 rate, but that may just be team’s choosing to foul Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas rather than giving up an easy layup. On the defensive side, we are rebounding far better, as our Dreb% has increased by almost 9% up to 74.9%, good for 10th in the nation. Thus, from these numbers, we can see Manning’s style of play emphasizes limiting second chance points while attacking the opponent offensively. This makes sense, for our half court offense doesn’t go far beyond throwing the ball to Devin in the post or allowing Codi to isolate and try beat his defender. That said, it still is miles better than anything Bzdelik tried to implement.

7. While Manning has brought in three sweet shooting freshmen in his first year, many attribute Wake's struggles this year to poor spacing. Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?

Z: The most important thing to consider with this team is that Danny Manning is only three months into his first season coaching the team. It takes time to institute a system which will maximize the talent on the roster. That being said, spacing is certainly a factor. We brought in freshman who can certainly shoot well, but they need time to develop chemistry with the rest of the team, and the rest of the team needs to understand how to set up our shooters. When we set up screens, there has often been a lack of efficient movement from the other players. As we just discussed, the half-court offense has yet to extend beyond Codi driving and Devin posting up near the basket. But the contribution from Dinos in the pick and pop game has opened a new dimension to the offense. With teams needing to concentrate on preventing a 40% 3 point shooter from getting open off of a screen, the floor will be better spaced, especially for the ball handler. While Wake has struggled this season, most of the struggles are due to inexperience and a lack of familiarity with the system and the rest of the team. But Coach Manning has this team poised for success in the very near future.

8. From a strategy perspective, what does Manning need to do this year, and in the coming years, to build a more efficient product and a top program?

A: The numbers clearly show that the most efficient shots in basketball come from beyond the three, close to the basket, and from the free throw line. As you mentioned in your previous question, Manning understands the value of a three point shot and we can expect that pattern to continue. What I am most excited about are the incoming big men next year in John Collins and Doral Moore. While Devin Thomas admirably fills the center position right now, having some additional rim protection and even more consistent defensive rebounding (especially in the clutch!) should lead to a better defensive team that limits the ever costly second chance points. Nevertheless, the additions of Dinos and post-grad Darius Leonard hint at Manning’s preference of a stretch four, so the front court rotation next year will be something to keep an eye on. Regardless of Manning’s game planning, it is going to take talent (i.e. shooting and size) to create the most efficient team, so recruiting, particularly the Class of 2016 with the potential of the addition of Harry Giles, will prove to show how far Manning can take the Deacs.

Thanks so much Adam and Zach for sharing your insight into the world of sports analytics. You can read their work at www.wfusportsanalytics.com or follow them on Twitter @WFU_SA.