When people think of basketball, math is not typically the first word that comes to mind.
Yet the game is changing. Three-pointers, floor spacing, and advanced numbers are part of the new age of basketball.
For an indication of how much numbers, or analytics, are now being factored into the game, look no further than the Springfield College men’s basketball bench during their home games.
Charlie Brock mans the sidelines as he has in his head coaching role for the past 22 seasons. His assistant coaches – Sean Martin, Patrick McGuinness, and Cam Earle serve their roles as his go-to guys.
Then there’s Andrew Perry.
Faculty guest coach Dr. Perry, that is.
Perry has been teaching at Springfield College since 1999 as a Professor of Mathematics, but 2019-2020 marked his first year serving a role for the men’s basketball team.
This year, Perry, a graduate of Williams College with a Bachelor of Arts in 1992 and a Doctor of Philosophy from Oklahoma State University in 1999, is serving as the numbers and analytics guru for the men’s basketball team.
He joins the team on the bench for their home games (and road games if he chooses), he’s in the locker room for pregame and postgame talks, and most importantly, he breaks down the data and makes recommendations to the coaches based on what he’s seeing.
Perry is the Pride’s numbers expert and data analyst mastermind.
While this season is the first year Perry has joined the Pride in this role, the original idea actually came up a few years back.
“When our sports analytics minor started, I knew that other colleges had sports analytics programs (that) were collaborating with the coaching staff,” Perry said.
“I went to the Athletic Director at the time (and) I said what coaches would be most amenable to that type of thing and Coach Brock was one coach that was named and we had arranged to get together and meet and he had gotten sick or whatever and we just didn’t end up talking.”
Coach Brock joked that he stood Perry up years ago, but this season the bond was finally created and the fit has been natural from the start.
In fact, Perry is just one of several faculty members who have spent time entrenched in either practices or games with Springfield College athletic programs this year. Multiple teacher coaches have invited their colleagues from a wide range of academic disciplines to gain the experience of being involved as a member of an athletic team as part of the department’s faculty guest coach initiative.
For Brock, a coach who has been around the game of basketball for such a long time, adjusting himself to the new wave of numbers and data analysis wasn’t the easiest way to go, but the decision has helped make his team that much more successful.
“Sean (Martin) is very much analytical, as is Cam (Earle), you know the younger guys are more tuned into that kind of stuff,” Brock said.
“I’m more inclined to go with what I’ve known and done for a long time, having said that, if there’s something I can use that they come up with and I can use to be applicable, I’m all about it. I just want to do what’s best for the team and help them be successful,” Brock added on bringing Perry into the mix.
The bulk of Perry’s role with the Pride is to break down the numbers after each game and analyze and interpret what the data is saying.
Perry looks at data and through that, makes recommendations to the coaching staff on what changes they may want to make or new things they could try to help the team be more successful.
According to Perry, one example would be that he concluded by looking at the data that junior big man Harper Niven was more effective on the floor when playing with only one of the Jake Ross-Heath Post duo, as opposed to both of them.
“I definitely show the data and I’m very differential. I understand that they (the coaches) know so many more things than I do. I would never think about just saying like, ‘Play this guy more’ without telling them the reason or anything like that,” Perry said. “I show them the data and mostly let them do with it what they want, but I do also point out some things that seem clear enough.”
For Perry, sitting on the bench allows him to confirm with his eyes things that the numbers tell him are happening on the court. This allows him to make sure he’s not reporting pure statistical anomalies which can happen from time to time.
“I’m looking at the kinds of things that have been showing up in the data recently that I’m wondering whether I will see visual confirmation (or not),” Perry said.
“Like when I made the conclusion about the Harper recommendations, then I really focused on looking at him, how does he look with the two stars in there, and how does he look when he’s more of a big-guy focus in a smaller lineup,” he added.
For Perry, the staff, and the players, the relationship has been nothing but positive to this point.
“Andrew has been great with looking at people and their statistics and figuring out what things can work well and better together. It’s a huge thing,” Brock said
“It’s been totally smooth and part of that is a credit to him. He’s not trying to be overbearing in any way at all. We’re thirsty for any information we can get that’s going to help us and I think the kids are too. Quite frankly, I think the guys enjoy the fact that there’s a mathematician sitting on the bench and he’s also a faculty member. He’s not a coach, he’s a math professor and a good one, a brilliant one, so we got him sitting on the bench with us when we’re stressed and trying to win a game or whatever is going on. It’s been pretty cool,” Brock added.
The transition into the role has not only been seamless for Perry, but it’s been one he’s enjoyed, too.
“I don’t necessarily interact with everyone all that much, but I think everyone’s happy to have me there. It’s kind of a novelty, kind of interesting for a lot of people. It’s not something people are used to, having a math guy on the coaching staff,” Perry said.
Between Brock and Perry, they have 43 years combined at Springfield College and have both been highly successful in their own ways.
Now, joining forces has opened up an entirely new and successful way of looking at the game for the men’s basketball program.
In the early portion of the season, Perry wasn’t quite as sure how he could fit himself into the dynamic of the team, but with time, that’s become much easier.
“The awkward time at first was when I was in this position for a while, I didn’t really have anything to add. Like Coach Brock, when we were with the team, he would say, ‘do you have anything to add Coach Perry?’ like specifically to tell the players at halftime or something like that,” Perry explained.
“Admittedly, I didn’t. I may have my own observations, but as far as end of game suggestions, what the more experienced coaches who played college basketball, what they can say is 20 times more valuable. I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know just how I could add value in terms of analysis,” he said.
As the season went on and the availability of numbers and data to work from increased, Perry figured out the best way to start looking at them and his role became clearer.
“When I actually figured out and when I actually got around to encoding the stuff and getting plus-minus data, then it was really exciting because then I really found what to do. I took that to the coaches and they said, ‘Yeah this is actually really helpful, we really like it, now maybe you can do this’ and there are other things they want as a longer-term project,” Perry said.
If success is any indication, Perry’s presence around the team has played at least some role in the amount of success the Birthplace Boys have had this season.
Now, with the NEWMAC Tournament and potentially a spot in the NCAA Division III Tournament looming, Perry, Brock, and everyone else in the program is preparing for the biggest part of the season.
If there’s one area the Pride are sure to have an advantage in come postseason time, it’s the numbers department.
Featured photo courtesy of Springfield College Athletics