How sports analytics helped Michigan basketball in way so obvious even Ohio State fans noticed

Why should you believe in sports analytics? Have numbers ever helped a team?

Predictive analytics can help you win your March Madness pool, but how about a real example in which numbers helped a team? An example so obvious that even a team’s most bitter rival can see the change?

I stumbled across a story this fall.

Tracking technology on Derrick Walton

In November of 2017, Michigan basketball coach John Beilein spoke at the Exercise and Sports Science Initiative (ESSI) Symposium at the University of Michigan. He talked about how his team uses technology from Catapult to track the work rate of players.

During the 2016-2017 season, he noticed point guard Derrick Walton was working harder than his teammates the day before games. If Catapult quantified the work rate of others at 800, then Walton measured at 1000.

Beilein didn’t think this 25% extra work was necessary, so he asked Walton to tone it down the day before games. After his talk, I raised my hand to ask whether he made this change in January.

To understand why I asked about this specific time, let’s go back to Michigan’s 2016-2017 season.

Michigan’s struggles in 2016

Michigan struggled during the first part of conference play in January of 2017. They started 1-3 against Big Ten competition and looked terrible.

Derrick Walton was a part of the problem, as he wasn’t playing well. We’ll get into specifics soon.

But first, let’s look back on why many Michigan fans liked Walton. He started as a freshman on a Michigan team that made the Elite Eight. He got injured his sophomore year, but his three point shooting and ability to get to the basket seemed to projected a bright future.

During the start of his junior year, I tweeted this.

More than a year later, this tweet didn’t seem insightful as Walton struggled into his senior season. He looked like an average Big Ten point guard, and I gave up on him as a game changing player.

I remember asking Sam Webb about Walton, as the point guard seemed like a hard worker destined for success. Webb, the ultimate Michigan football and basketball insider, confirmed his work ethic but also wondered why Walton wasn’t playing better.

Then, starting in January of 2017, Walton goes on a tear.

A tale of two seasons

On January 14, 2017, Michigan played Nebraska. Before this game, Walton converted 38% of his two point shots. Starting with Nebraska, he made 49% of his two point shots.

For a guard like Walton, two pointers represent high energy shots like lay ups or a pull up jumpers. More energy during games could contribute to this increase in field goal percentage.

Randomness plays a bigger role in 3 point jumpers, but Walton also improved in this area. He hit 40% of his 3 pointers before Nebraska, but then 44% after.

Known as a great rebounder, Walton’s rebounding improved as well. His rebounds per minute increased 25% starting with the Nebraska game compared to before that game.

Michigan played better basketball starting with Nebraska. They ended the season 9-5 against Big Ten competition. However, they still needed to win games in the Big Ten tournament to make the NCAA tournament.

Then, the Michigan basketball team almost died.

Post season play for Michigan

As they tried to fly to Washington DC for the Big Ten tournament, strong winds swept their plane off the runway. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt.

The experience shook Michigan to a higher level. They won the Big Ten tournament, as Derrick Walton took home Most Valuable Player honors.

Michigan now had an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, and they beat Oklahoma State in a close opening round game. Then, as a 7 seed, Michigan beat 2 seed Louisville in their best game of the season to make the Sweet 16.

Their Sweet 16 game against Oregon went down to the wire. Down 1 point in the waning seconds of regulation, Walton had a pull up jumper from about 15 feet that would have won the game.

In the fairy tale, the shot drops and Michigan advances to the Elite Eight. In reality, the shot bounced off the rim.

No matter the result, Derrick Walton’s play led Michigan on a remarkable run to close the 2018 season. He now plays for the Miami Heat.

Walton’s run started in January, so it prompted me to ask coach Beilein whether he made Walton tone it down in practice around then because of the player tracking data.

Yes, said Beilein.

Data. Analytics. It works.

Cover image courtesy of Marc-Gregor.

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