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ShotTracker and the Mountain West are at the forefront of the next phase in college basketball’s analytics revolution

How coaches and teams will use data moving forward

NCAA Basketball: Boise State at Wyoming Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

An unsolicited email to Mountain West commissioner Dan Butterly last October may just be what sets off the next phase of college basketball’s analytics revolution. The email, which immediately caught Butterly’s attention, came from Davyeon Ross, the co-founder and president of ShotTracker — a sensor-based tracking system that provides teams with statistics, trends, and insights in real time.

Now, just seven months later, the Mountain West has announced a five-year partnership with ShotTracker, making it the first conference to have unilateral coverage from the sensor-based system. The software, set to be installed at 23 game and practice facilities at the 11 different campuses across the conference, will be available to men’s and women’s programs alike.

ShotTracker provides over 70 statistics to coaches through an application on an iPad or tablet equivalent, including shot charts and efficiency breakdowns. Unlike some professional sports leagues, where tablets on the sideline are common, the NCAA does not currently allow this for the purposes of data transition. While the Mountain West and ShotTracker plan on applying for a special waiver to allow access to tablet use during the game, the NCAA already allows coaches to use iPads to check ShotTracker metrics during halftime. Even getting data of this nature at halftime is a big improvement over traditional print box scores the majority of teams get from their Sports Information Directors. At the 2018 Mountain West conference tournament, during which a trial for the sensor-based software was conducted, coaches were “so excited getting [the data] at halftime” that the conference knew the tracking software had huge potential, according to Ross.

Ross said that currently, game data will only be available to teams that participate in a particular game. That is to say that Nevada would not have access to ShotTracker data from a game played between Boise State and Colorado State. In fact, Ross thinks that most of the insight or changes teams might make as a result of access to ShotTracker metrics will come from viewing practice data. Ross noted that ShotTracker “saw a lot of teams actually making changes to their gameplans and what shots they take and where they set up their players to take those shots,” based primarily on practice data, where significantly more reps were available.

Given that the data teams possess is primarily on their own players, it seems most likely that ShotTracker will aid teams more in internal assessment of players and strategy as opposed to opponent scouting. It’s not as though this will be the first time coaches are exposed to certain metrics like efficiency breakdowns, pass maps, or player shot charts, but ShotTracker offers a tremendous improvement in the volume of data available, the accuracy of the data, and the speed at which it can be accessed. Without ShotTracker, coaches would have to manually tag, chart, and compute desired statistics, which would eat up a tremendous amount of time.

Butterly echoed the sentiment that the split-second access to data, especially in non-game situations, is a big advance for the conference as a whole.

“Managers or basketball operations staff were keeping stats during practices, so you are taking a person or two out of those practices to keep statistics and track trends,” Butterly said.

With ShotTracker automating this processes, teams will have the ability to better utilize personnel and maximize efficiency in practice.

It remains to be seen exactly how Mountain West teams might change their respective game plans. NCAA teams collectively have been taking three-point shots at an increasing rate and playing faster each year. Will ShotTracker accelerate this country-wide trend in the Mountain West or will it encourage certain teams to enter the modern age of basketball? Examining trends in adjusted tempo from KenPom, Air Force stands out as a team that has increased its pace considerably and consistently in the last two decades. Fresno State, San Jose State and New Mexico have also increased their speed in the past few years, perhaps suggesting they are primed to immediately benefit from the new ShotTracker metrics.

Of course, slower pace doesn’t imply a team is analytically inept — just look at Virginia — but it simply offers a proxy for which teams have actively invested at embracing analytical trends. Butterly didn’t hypothesize whether a few teams in particular would benefit more than others, but did note that coaches from all 11 schools in the conference were completely onboard and excited by the adoption of ShotTracker.

Players and coaches aren’t the only ones set to benefit from the new technology. Both Ross and Buttlery said they anticipate some form of the data being available to fans, both in the form of summary statistics and charts available in the ShotTracker app, and through advanced metrics being used in broadcasts. The latter was done during last year’s Mountain West conference tournament.

Butterly expects big things from the Mountain West-ShotTracker partnership, both within the conference and across the NCAA.

“Although we are the first conference to sign on board with ShotTracker, we aren’t going to be the last,” he said.