The NCAA Tourney’s Sweet Sixteen tips off tonight featuring many of basketball history’s usual suspects – Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and North Carolina. As we have become accustomed to during sports’ greatest event, there are also a few unfamiliar faces – including the Marquette Golden Eagles. You may remember Marquette from their glory days when Dwayne Wade led them to the Final Four as members of Conference USA. Now they are in the Big East, where they finished eleventh in the regular season and made a second round exit in their conference tournament. So how does an unranked, 11-seed earn a Sweet Sixteen date with arguably the greatest college basketball program of all time, two-seeded North Carolina?
Marquette Head Coach “Buzz” Williams has a distinct competitive advantage that businesses outside of the sports arena have been using for decades: data analytics. In fact, his obsession with numbers has drawn comparisons to “Rain Man”. Williams, much like a CEO running a widget factory, has identified key performance indicators (KPI’s) that he believes can help make his team successful. His defensive KPI’s include getting back in transition, keeping the ball out of the paint, and defending without fouling. On offense, as he revealed through a six-minute rant on the Jim Rome Show last week, Williams meticulously counts touches in the paint. You may be thinking to yourself that these statistics would make common sense to track – doesn’t everything seem like common sense after you’ve already heard it?
The true common sense here is that all teams should be using data analytics, both on the court/field as well as in the front office. In baseball, these analytics are referred to as Sabermetrics, the analysis of objective baseball evidence. I have been pretty clear about my feelings on the competitive imbalance in MLB, but due in large part to Sabermetrics, the small-market Oakland Athletics were able to break through and find success in the 1990’s.
While there are many intangibles in sports, analytical pioneers have proven time and time again that data analytics can be the difference between winning and losing. Other MLB teams such as the Boston Red Sox have adopted Sabermetrics in recent years, and a few NFL teams including the Kansas City Chiefs are taking data analytics more seriously. For us strategists out there, it will be fun to watch as the battle evolves from the athletes on the field/court to the minds of the executives in front offices.
There is one number that I’m sure Buzz Williams is well aware of – eleven seeds are 1-7 against two seeds in the Sweet Sixteen, with the only upset coming in 1986 when LSU knocked off Georgia Tech. I am looking forward to seeing if Williams has unearthed a statistic powerful enough to give his team a chance to reach the Elite Eight.