For just over a decade now, Ken Pomeroy has been slowly aiding a shift in college basketball.
Whether or not you’ve heard of the creator of kenpom.com, chances are, the head coach of your favorite team has.
Pomeroy’s name has become a mainstay within college basketball’s lexicon, and his website has become a study guide of sorts for teams across the nation’s landscape.
But what is kenpom.com?
On the surface, kenpom is merely a website for “advanced analysis of college basketball.” Lacking are any fancy frills or eye-popping graphics upon first glance of the site. Rather, a visitor is greeted with the latest Pomeroy rankings, decided not by eye-test or record, but statistics.
And not just any set of statistics.
“The main thing is points per possession,” Pomeroy told GatorCountry.com. “For offense, points scored per possession, and for defense, points allowed per possession. Those get adjusted for the quality of the opponent, and where the game was played, when the game was played, and that’s what basically goes into the main ratings.”
In the 1970’s, a University of Kansas grad named Bill James began to delve deeply into baseball data. Although dealing with an early slew of skeptics, James would eventually help pioneer sabermetrics — a novel idea which used statistical analysis to examine baseball.
It’s of course, no shock, that James was a major influence on Pomeroy.
“I guess I’ve always been kind of a nerd at heart,” Pomeroy said. “I love math and statistics. I grew up reading Bill James … I kind of realized nobody was doing this kind of work in college basketball. So when I first started doing it, it was kind of to fill a void and then it just kind of gradually grew year after year to what it’s become today.”
What Pomeroy’s site has become today is a must-stop shop for college basketball junkies — fans and coaches alike. While he is no longer the only one in the advanced analysis business for college hoops, Pomeroy remains the torchbearer for a nascent concept which will surely continue to grow.
The statistics on Pomeroy’s site are as intriguing as they are vast. While the main idea (as Pomeroy pointed out) is points per possession, his stats also account for factors such as luck — an often-understated facet of a team’s success.
Although Florida has yet to achieve a No. 1 ranking in either the Associated Press or USA Today Coaches Polls, the Gators first shot to the top of Pomeroy’s list in mid-December. After taking a brief dip, the Gators retook pole position in January, and are yet to fall from their slot since.
While Pomeroy’s rankings are purely based on statistics, the Utah-native who watches games “pretty much every night” has liked what he’s seen out of the Gators this season.
“I’ve watched them (Florida) quite a bit,” Pomeroy said. “I’m not sure they’re the best team in the country — I’d probably pick Indiana over them — but I would probably put them at No. 2 just in my own personal rankings. I think they’re really good as long as they stay healthy — they’re having some problems with that — but they look like the real deal.
“The thing that stands out about them is they’re really balanced. They obviously don’t have a single superstar, and that might hurt their perception a little bit, but they have five guys on the court — at least four — that are pretty capable scorers. That seems to be kind of the trademark of Billy’s teams as well, he doesn’t rely on one guy — the offense is pretty evenly spread around.”
If you’re wondering why Pomeroy is on a first name basis with the Gators’ head coach, it’s because just this past summer, Pomeroy was extended an invitation to speak at Donovan’s annual coaching clinic.
According to Pomeroy, although he’s spoken with “pretty much everyone” on the Florida staff, there’s one member in particular, Oliver Winterbone, who has really embraced his site.
Prior to joining Florida’s staff in 2010, Winterbone learned of Pomeroy’s site several years ago while at Virginia. Winterbone initially used the site to get an idea of potential seeding in league tournaments, as well as to get a look at the Cavaliers’ upcoming opponents.
Pomeroy’s site contains a bevy of readily available information, which according to Winterbone, has become a necessity for Donovan.
“Billy wants to know what our numbers are at both halftime and the end of the game,” Winterbone said. “We track it for different segments: zone, press, transition, lineups. One of our managers will track the numbers during various segments in practice — teams with the worst numbers will have to run often.”
When asked how Pomeroy’s statistics serve their purpose for the Gators and their preparation, Winterbone was quick to answer.
“I think the best thing about using OER and DER (Off/Def Efficiency Rating) is that you’re competing against yourselves for a short stretch of time, be it four possessions or six possessions, and having a goal to meet in practice,” Winterbone said.
“This way the scoreboard doesn’t matter, it’s all about winning as many individual possessions as we can. It forces you to try and be the best that you can be, because we set lofty goals for ourselves as far as where our numbers should be in OER and DER.”
Pomeroy’s reach has grown immensely over the years, so much so that he’s actually served as a paid consultant to at least one team. Pomeroy doesn’t hold an official position within the Florida staff, but Winterbone says that he’s had a number of conversations with the one man who understands the stats better than anyone.
“I’ve communicated with Ken in some form probably 4 or 5 times this year,” Winterbone said. “Often, it’s to get a better understanding of a specific number. For example, he tracks “Luck” on his site. Some of the other conversations include what numbers Ken feels are most valuable for us to know about ourselves and our opponents — just picking his brain, trying to gain an edge in how we look at things.”
While the Gators continue to use Pomeroy’s stats in hopes of reaching the Final Four, Pomeroy himself is having trouble predicting who will be the last four teams standing in Atlanta, Ga.
“Picking a Final Four is pretty much impossible,” Pomeroy said with a laugh. “I think if I was going to go with the four best, pick the four best teams … I think the top three is definitely Indiana, Florida and Louisville. I think those are the three best teams in the country. And the fourth one is kind of up for grabs.
“I can see Gonzaga in there, I can see Duke in there, I can see Michigan in there. I think those are the next three best teams. That said, the Final Four won’t come from those six teams, there will be an upset or two that sneaks in there.”
With the unpredictable nature of the NCAA tournament, picking a winner is almost impossible, and has been since the tournament’s inception. Like the top-25 lists handed in by writers and coaches each week, Pomeroy’s rankings come with no guarantees.
“The first thing you should know about this system is that it is designed to be purely predictive,” Pomeroy writes on his website.
Although advanced statistics are just beginning to make their rounds through college basketball, Pomeroy doesn’t consider the stats and sites like his to be ephemeral.
“I think it (advanced stats) will continue to make progress,” Pomeroy said. “There’s more and more people using it and kind of writing about the game in those terms.”
Sabermetrics in baseball have essentially taken on a life of their own, prompting many changes in the way the game is analyzed and discussed — as it was intended. While advanced stats may have just begun to find a home in college basketball, Pomeroy doesn’t expect it to have the same effect as it has on America’s pastime.
“There’s a lot of things in basketball you just can’t answer very easily with statistics,” Pomeroy said. “Whereas baseball you can isolate at-bats and batter-pitcher matchups and things like that. It’s a lot easier to use statistics in baseball than basketball.
“But as far as you can do it in basketball, I think that kind of stuff will continue. There’s more and more people in the game that are using this.”
As for his own future plans, Pomeroy, who still seems to be in awe of the way his site’s popularity has exploded, is taking things one day at a time.
“I didn’t have any plans for (the site) to become what it has,” Pomeroy said. “It’s hard to really predict what will happen next, but I’m sure it will continue to grow as the years go on.”