TGC Professor Leads Analytics Team That’s Changing Basketball

advanced data analysis integrated at davidson college

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

The Davidson Wildcats owe some thanks to a student math team, WBUR reported recently. The college basketball team has benefited in recent years from thorough data analysis. The teacher at the helm returns to The Great Courses to explain how.

Professor Chartier with math concept writing
Professor Tim Chartier formed the student group Cats Stats to track the statistics of college sports teams by using advanced analytics. Photo by Davidson College

Dr. Tim Chartier is a Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Davidson College and is the mastermind behind the Davidson-based data analytics team Cats Stats, an 80-person group that goes over sports games with a fine-tooth comb to pick up on statistics and trends well beyond most schools. Dr. Chartier also taught the course Big Data: How Data Analytics Is Transforming the World for The Great Courses, which offers insight into how quantifiable information permeates every aspect of life and how to take advantage of it.

Given the wide scope of data his course covers, it’s fitting that he and Cats Stats are analyzing multiple sports on-campus at Davidson and branching out into professional sports as well as the U.S. Olympics.

Thinking Outside the Box Scores

Dr. Chartier first came into sports ranking by looking at Google. One of the things that makes the search engine stand out is that it analyzes websites for both relevance and quality in relation to any search that’s put into it. He and a colleague took that and applied it to basketball.

“We were looking at other types of ranking methods that were used for sports—methods actually used to determine who would play in college bowl games—and we were like, ‘Well, they’ll rank, but how good are they?'” Dr. Chartier said. He decided with his main collaborator at the time—Dr. Amy Langville, Professor of Mathematics at the College of Charleston—to turn their player rankings into a bracket for the upcoming basketball season to compare with others’.

They outperformed 97 percent of normal brackets on ESPN.

“I’ve continued to work on brackets since, which is what really launched me into sports,” Dr. Chartier said.

Soon, Dr. Chartier had several students looking at increasingly intricate points of data for the Davidson Wildcats to help determine how to optimize their game performance. He said these statistics can include more obvious ones like percentages made or missed of two-point shots, three-point shots, and freethrows.

He also said that Cats Stats focus on advanced analytics, or things that aren’t traditionally captured in a box score. One example he gave is “usage,” which looks at how much a player or team is in control of getting or not getting points during their offensive plays.

They also use advanced analytics when they look at opposing teams play styles and strategies.

“A lot of what we’re looking for is the outlier,” Dr. Chartier said. “What do their players or the team do that’s unlike someone else, either good or bad? They could be really bad at it in an outlier way or really good at it in an outlier way. That’s one of the most fundamental things; it’s very simple in a way.”

Aggressive Expansion

Cats Stats’s usefulness was felt almost immediately. Dr. Chartier said that the coaches they worked with were quick to point out how much time the math students were saving the team from analyzing their own game data. One clear example came with football, which his students also analyze.

“The moment the game’s over, two hours later, we had reports made and e-mailed to them and we were saving the coaches three hours of time per week,” he said. “Once they saw that we could save that kind of time they were trying to think of other tasks [of theirs] initially that could just get folded into what we were trying to do.”

In the last seven years, according to the WBUR article, Cats Stats has expanded from three students to 80 students. However, the group’s expansion didn’t end with its ranks.

“We started with men’s basketball, then moved to women’s basketball two years later,” Dr. Chartier said. “The only reason we waited that long was we wanted to make sure we could do men’s basketball well before we moved onto another sport. Now we do men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, baseball, volleyball, field hockey, swimming, and football.”

Cats Stats students have taken their data analytics beyond school grounds, too. Dr. Chartier said they’ve worked with the NBA, NFL, NASCAR, ESPN, The New York Times, and the U.S. Olympic Committee—the Charlotte Hornets met with Cats Stats on Tuesday to discuss a possible partnership. They’re also continuing to develop and expand their program at home.

“The biggest area we’re working on right now is recruiting analytics, with the idea being that if you look at all the high school players, which high school players would make particularly good recruits for our teams?” Dr. Chartier said. “Not just that they’re a #1 recruit nationally, though that may be the case, but could they fit our program? You’re really looking for those players that might be less seen but they’d be phenomenal in our system.”

Dr. Chartier’s series Big Data: How Data Analytics Is Transforming the World is available now.

Dr. Tim Chartier is a Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Davidson College. He holds a B.S. in Applied Mathematics and an M.S. in Computational Mathematics, both from Western Michigan University. He received his Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from the University of Colorado Boulder.