PROVO — When BYU basketball coach Mark Pope was a college basketball player at Washington and Kentucky and an NBA player with a variety of teams, coaches could get what they wanted out of him and his teammates by sheer force of will.
“It was just an environment where you had no choice,” Pope says, “because he was going to just destroy you if you didn’t do what he wanted.”
Today’s players are different, the Cougars’ first-year coach said last week. It takes more than screaming, yelling and making them run ladders or do up-downs to get them to listen and follow instruction. They need to know the whys and hows.
That’s where analytics come in, especially at a program such as BYU where the players might not be as athletically gifted as they are at bigger-name programs. When he succeeded Dave Rose last April, Pope promised the heavy use of analytics, saying it was one of the reasons he was so successful at Utah Valley University.
Suffice to say, the plan is working at BYU, where the Cougars are flourishing in the most important numbers — they are 19-7 overall and in second place in the West Coast Conference with an 8-3 league record heading into this week’s two-game road trip at Loyola Marymount and San Diego.
“We need other tools now, and I think (analytics) are a great tool to help guys really believe in their hearts about how to get where you are trying to go,” Pope said. “It is a field that we spend a lot of time in.”
Last week, Pope talked excitedly about how the Cougars were No. 1 in points per possession on Synergy, a statistical software program and website to which many schools subscribe. BYU also subscribes to KenPom.com, an “advanced analysis of college basketball” service managed by Salt Lake City resident Ken Pomeroy.
“For six years now … we have been crunching (numbers) and selling and agonizing over and trying to scheme around this general idea of points per possession,” Pope said. “Now we are the No. 1 team in America in points per possession.”
That’s analytics at work, he added.
There have been some hiccups along the way, and sometimes there’s the danger of “going down a rabbit hole” with too many numbers and formulas and such, Pope said, but for the most part he’s happy with how his staff has implemented the analytics and how his players have improved by using them.
“We could talk about this until all you guys went into a coma,” he told reporters after responding to a request for an example of how analytics have helped the current team. He said they’ve tracked everything from dribbles per possession for individuals and the team, to how many guys crash the board on offense as opposed to how many sprint back to play defense.
A few months after he got the BYU job, Pope hired Boston College graduate Nathan Bubes away from his post as a coaching assistant for the Los Angeles Lakers and named him the program’s coordinator of strategy and analytics.
“Nate Bubes is 100%, unequivocally, without hyperbole, a total game-changer for our program here at BYU,” Pope said.
However, Bubes left in September to work in a similar role for the New Orleans Pelicans, and BYU brought in Keegan Brown as its men’s basketball video coordinator. Brown got his undergraduate degree from BYU and has a master’s degree in sports business management from the University of Central Florida. He also has a background in analytics.
Assistant coach Cody Fueger, who followed Pope from BYU to UVU in 2015 and returned after four seasons coaching just down University Parkway in Orem, said the coaches “were really into analytics” at UVU and have continued to use them heavily in Provo.
“I would say we are among the top (schools) in the country in using analytics every day,” Fueger said. “Keegan Brown does an unbelievable job, just giving us numbers and ideas. And we also have a great relationship with (Ken Pomeroy), too, just to get a better understanding of how the numbers work.”
Fueger said Arizona transfer Alex Barcello has especially taken analytics to heart and has improved his efficiency with the ball because of it.
“He went from being below one point per possession in transition, and now he is over one point in transition possessions,” Fueger said. “So that has changed his game. We show him the numbers, and now his efficiency is much better. That’s what we want. That’s our goal.”
Jake Toolson, one of the top 3-point shooters in the country, said analytics were stressed at UVU when he was there and are referenced a lot at BYU.
“The numbers teach us a lot about what the game is trying to tell us,” Toolson said. “Coach says that a lot, and it is true. There are so many different ways they can help you.”
Fellow guard TJ Haws said analytics have helped him identify everything from where on the floor he makes his most 3-pointers to how he can improve his decisions in transition.
“Around here,” he said. “Analytics are everything.”
And winning has followed.