Sunday, November 25, 2012

Moneyball: Grinnell College Style

One of the big sports stories this past week was Jack Taylor of Grinnell College scoring 138 points in a single basketball game.  When discussing this story with my family and friends, the conversation always seems to steer towards the "ethical-ness" (or sportmanship) of the coach's strategy: essentially going for steals using full-court defensive pressure and giving up easy 2's in order to take lots of open 3-pointers at the other end (Taylor was 27-for-71 from the 3-point line and 52-for-108 overall).

It turns out that the Grinnell coach's strategy is based on a student's project done in the early 1990's that pointed out statistical patterns that were keys to winning.  These include:

  • Attempt at least 25 more shots than their opponent
  • Take at least 94 shots per game
  • At least half of all shots are 3-point attempts
  • Rebound at least 33% of its missed shots
  • Force the opponent into at least 32 turnovers
More recently, a pair of students at Grinnell re-examined these keys and came to a slightly different conclusion (namely, that turnover differential is more important than number of opponent turnovers).  You can access the paper here, about half of which is statistical, but the other half should be easily understood by all.  While the analysis is nice, by far the coolest thing about the paper is that the students interviewed the head coach, David M. Arseneault, got his feedback on their work, and included his comments in their paper.  While Grinnell is only a DIII school, I think it's great that a head college basketball coach is not only willing to meet with and discuss a statistics project with undergrads, but has built his strategy based on previous students' work (no mention if he has incorporated these latest suggestions to his strategy).  

Congrats to Jack Taylor and Coach Arseneault, and only time will tell if all of the publicity surrounding this game will prompt other coaches to adopt his strategy, or at least devise their own strategies based on statics (with bonus points for using undergrads to help)!

(Thanks to Simply Statistics for the link to the student paper described here.)