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Duke's analytic advantage keeps growing

12/16/2014

In October 2013, the Duke Blue Devils became the first college basketball program to install SportVU cameras in both Cameron Indoor Stadium and team practice facilities. In the past few years, SportVU's high-speed cameras, which track player and ball movements 25 times a second, turning everything that happens on the floor into a quantifiable statistic, have revolutionized NBA front offices. But the Blue Devils are the only college program to install the cameras specifically for its own use (Marquette has them, thanks to its shared home with the Milwaukee Bucks)*, and the only club anywhere with the cameras hooked up during practices.

So, after a year-plus spent compiling SportVU data, how has the Blue Devils' approach changed?

Statistics acquired through SportVU can be tailored to a team’s needs. In its second year of use at Duke, the staff is still exploring the possibilities. “We’re getting more of an understanding of what we’re seeing,” says [Duke basketball director of information technology Kevin] Cullen, a former team manager who graduated from Duke with a degree in computer science in 2007. “I think we understand better what they’re presenting and how to use it.”

“It’s amplifications of principles that I think are generally true,” Cullen says of SportVU data. “Some of them are surprising. None of them are earth-shattering. None of them are going to win the game.”

Those quotes, given to the Raleigh News & Observor's Barry Jacobs on Monday, should either make Duke opponents very happy, or slightly worried. The right response depends on how coy you think Cullen is being.

On the one hand, it's not like Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn't a fan of watching film before. And it's certainly true that SportVU information doesn't necessarily alter the fundamental things coaches have demanded for decades. Box-outs, well-set screens, timely rotations, deflections, the extra swing pass -- the quantification of these concepts is new, but the concepts themselves are not. If you're an opposing coach, you are free to take some solace from this. So what, right? We track stats, too.

On the other hand, this goes beyond a raft of graduate managers tracking between-the-box-score plays on the sidelines, scribbling marks on a clipboard for every missed transition pass or slow close-out. Duke is the only school in the country employing military-grade camera hardware in games and practices. Its staff is the only one in the country able to sort the ream of information those cameras produce with algorithms that stretch far beyond what the human eye can see. This is a competitive advantage. Possibly a major one. And if you were Cullen, and you presided over the lone SportVU implementation in your entire sport, would you be openly share the details of that implementation? No, you wouldn't.

Besides, it's not like the Blue Devils are analytical revanchists. Cullen offered Jacobs one notable example of advanced stats in action. In helping Duke's perimeter players understand the best way to play off center Jahlil Okafor -- who on Monday night became the first freshman in Duke history to put up a 20-point, 20-rebound game -- the Duke staff used shot breakdowns to hammer a simple point home:

“I think coaches for years have always tried to coach good and bad shots by their players. And one of the more simple things is the catch-and-shoot three versus a 3-pointer off the dribble,” Cullen explains.

The Blue Devils made 42 percent of their catch-and-shoot 3-pointers (51-121) in their first seven games, all wins. Given that only 42 long-distance tries were created off the dribble – with 28 percent accuracy – it appears the lesson sank in. “You try to look at where you can be your best,” Cullen says. “That’s one area that we’ve made a conscious effort to improve.”

You don't need missile-systems lenses to tell you this. Synergy scouting breakdowns -- eagerly in use at dozens, if not hundreds, of programs across the country -- would more than suffice. But this one example tells you what you need to know about Duke's philosophy on the topic at large.

Coach K doesn't need numbers to tell him what a good shot is. But if he can back up instruction with tangible numbers, why wouldn't he? If you have the information, why not use it? Cullen might not be making his SportVU work public, but it's a safe bet he's applying it. Meanwhile, the sample set is only getting larger. Day by day, game by game, practice by practice, the information gets more useful.

So, yeah, if you're an ACC coach, go ahead and add "potentially massive data advantage" to your list of Duke-related concerns. Slot it in just behind "loads of NBA talent" and "a coach nine games away from his 1000th career win." As if Duke wasn't scary enough already.

*Update: Louisville basketball has also installed SportVU cameras in its home arena, the Yum! Center, though not in its practice facility.