PORTLAND – “Analytics” isn’t exactly a dirty word to Gonzaga coach Mark Few, but it sometimes is attended by a mildly critical modifier.
He said this week that his son AJ often brings him the “hottest stat” or other advanced metrics that are being used by the number-crunchers to quantify the performances of athletes and teams.
Some sports are more easily captured by statistical analysis. Baseball, for instance.
But basketball is more ethereal, the stuff of jazz or dance, defying objective mathematical definition.
It’s become such a big part of coaching and team assessment, though, that the analytics-based NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) has been used the past four years to facilitate tournament selection and seeding.
Few said that former director of basketball operations John Jakus, in 2015, helped him start “implementing analytics more into our preparation and how we play, but, again, it’s a small piece.”
Worth mentioning at this point is that one of the early advocates of advanced statistical evaluation was Jerry Krause, former Eastern Washington head coach and then Gonzaga assistant and director of basketball operations.
Krause, with a master’s in math, was drawn to the statistical interpretation when he saw the work of a math teacher/coach (Paul Keller) in Ohio. Keller started supplying information on offensive and defensive efficiency to the national championship Ohio State teams of 1961 and 1962.
It made a lot of sense to Krause. Now 84, Krause has written dozens of books on coaching and continues to offer statistical help to the GU women’s basketball team.
Krause said he raised the notion of applying statistical analyses once he joined the Zags in 1995. Few, then an assistant, didn’t fully embrace the concept.
“Mark, in my opinion, is a great intuitive coach who is really excellent at having the feel of the game, and is really a master of in-game decision-making and coaching. He was resistant (to analytics), but he’s listening all the time and he’s a very intelligent man. And now I see he’s sometimes using analytic explanations for what went on in games.”
There’s a great deal to choose from: OER and DER (offensive and defensive efficiency ratings), PER (player efficiency ratings), TS (true shooting percentage) and a dozen or more other breakdowns.
Analyst Ken Pomeroy has developed a popular rating system (KenPom.com), which loves the Zags, ranking them No. 1 in AdjO (adjusted offense) and No. 7 in AdjD (adjusted defense).
Krause said that such statistics are best when supplying measurements for status and progress, but not the sole basis of coaching decisions.
“I’ve always said that quantitative measures, analytics, isn’t everything, but it certainly isn’t nothing,” Krause said. “And coaches basing everything on the qualitative, the feel of the game, that’s not everything, either.”
Listen to Few, and it becomes obvious that he has no problem with analyzing players’ performances, he just doesn’t try to make his point with numbers.
From his comments the past few days, we might want to abandon the KenPom ratings and create Mark Few’s system, MarFew, if you will, which judges players on subjective discernment rather than data.
When he praised the way his center, Drew Timme, overcame a slow start to lead the Zags to a victory in their NCAA Tournament opener against Georgia State, Few said that such a turnaround “takes incredible fortitude and incredible belief.”
Fortitude and belief have to be described since they can’t be measured. On the MarFew system, that would be labeled F&B. And Timme graded out: incredible.
When he addressed this season’s loss of high NBA draft pick Jalen Suggs, Few called him a “flying comet of a player and person.” That’s an FCPP. It captures a rare player’s ability to make plays so breathtakingly athletic that people rise and scream incoherent syllables without control, and at high decibels.
This year’s FCPP? Freshman big man Chet Holmgren, no question.
Few said that Holmgren does a lot of “eye-popping things” (EPT) and also does some real “head-scratching things” (HST)
He also cited Holmgren as high in what me might call the Z.A.G. score (Zag-ish Attitude Guy). “He’s so coachable and he’s such a hard worker. Probably my greatest highlight is to walk out there in the morning and he’s already got a full sweat going that morning.” It’s a very important attribute in this program. Coachability and hard work, crucial to Zag calculus.
At his news conference Friday morning, Few was asked about senior guard Rasir Bolton. Few raved that Bolton was a “really, really deep and special human being.” That’s the rare R2DSHB rating.
KenPom can’t rank depth and humanity. MarFew can.
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