Big Data is Changing the Game in NCAA Basketball

For an amateur sport, NCAA Men’s Division I basketball draws a great deal of professional muscle into its orbit. That includes technology, as tech experts are regularly recruited by teams to help analyze massive amounts of data on their opponents and improve the team’s chance of success in the NCAA Tournament.

Unlike in baseball, where the advent of statistical analysis heralded a growth in the teams’ offensive power, in college basketball the math gives the edge squarely to the defense. Thanks to the work done primarily by companies like Synergy Sports Technology – and by one of its founders Garrick Barr – the past few seasons have seen a trend of lower-scoring games across the entire division.

If it was just a few forward-thinking coaches who used Synergy, there would be no discussion of the technology’s effect on the game. But Synergy, which sells its product to all 30 NBA teams, started selling to colleges five years ago and now counts more than 300 Division I men’s teams and 270 Division I women’s programs as subscribers. There are 5,700 men’s Division I college basketball games in a season, and Synergy has film on all but about 100.

Having all the game information at their fingertips mere hours after each game’s concluding whistle means that coaches can now adjust and calibrate their defensive schemes on the fly. According to Barr, the nature of basketball is such that coaches have a lot more control over the defense and are typically more skilled at designing approaches for minimizing the other team’s point scoring opportunities than they are dictating offensive strategies.

And therefore it is natural that as a result, the total points scored are going to go down – as they’re predicted to do, reaching a level not seen since 1952.

The level of detail provided to the coaching staff by the Synergy system is astounding.

When coaches and video coordinators launch Synergy on their computers, a spreadsheet stuffed with numbers opens. This is the statistical backbone of Synergy, the cumulative box scores with data such as how many times a post player will set up on the left block and spin to his right or turn around and shoot a jumper. There also are columns with data such as a library of baseline out of bounds plays that coaches mine for an opponent’s tendencies. Clicking a number in blue brings up video, which part-time employee loggers have captured from television or downloads sent by schools and then married with the numbers.

And it helps the teams with problems other than the ones they encounter of the court. Many coaches now use Synergy to evaluate recruits and transfers, when working out their recruiting strategies.