Technology continues to extend its tentacles into every nook and cranny of society, and the sports world is no exception. One of the latest moves in that direction is the gathering of real-time data from athletes on the field, and the Big 12 just took another large step forward in that regard with the announcement of a partnership with ShotTracker, which provides a wealth of data on every aspect of basketball by placing sensors in the ball itself, on players’ jerseys and around the entire court that will provide statistics and data on every shot, pass, and movement of both player and ball during a game or practice.
Want to know from exactly where on the court Taz Sherman takes each of his shots, and his success rate from each location? Or what WVU’s success rate is when it passes the ball fewer than three times or more than four times per possession? ShotTracker has the answers.
West Virginia has, over the past few seasons, tried to track some of those things manually, but as can be imagined that requires repeated watching and rewatching of games to log all of that into a computer system before it could be analyzed. Now, with ShotTracker, all of that data is gathered automatically.
The quick availability of that data has Tyler Cheng, WVU’s Athletic Data Statistician for Men’s Basketball, more than excited. He’s on the cutting edge of that field and got a head start in the 2020-21 season after the sensors were installed in the WVU Coliseum.
“We used it this past season at both games and in practices, and we kept it fairly simple,” the eight-year veteran of the Mountaineer program noted. “I wanted to have some data to work with before we start really started breaking things down, and we still did it manually in order to provide some checkpoints. During games last year, I’d have to go back and hand count things like how many passes to score, paint touches, etc., but now it breaks it all down for us This year I’m really looking forward to everything we can do with it.
“I have an iPad on the sideline and we can have more on it now,” said Cheng, who holds two masters’ degrees to go along with his bachelor’s sheepskin. “It’s not like we can only look at this during timeouts. We’ll need to focus on what they want, and I’ll look at the data progressively during the game, especially at halftime, and then we can make adjustments from it.”
Cheng noted that the sensors, despite their advanced technology, are quite unobtrusive.
“There are sensors all around the court and they blend in so well they aren’t a distraction,” Cheng explained. “In practice players wear a sensor on their shoe, and in the game, they go on the back or shoulder of their jersey. We haven’t had any complaints about them.”
Putting a sensor in the ball was a bit more involved, as even the slight bit of additional weight of the tracker could have made the ball spin a bit lopsided. That issue was fixed by replacing the small piece of leather that was on the opposite side of the valve, where the ball is inflated, with the tracker.
Some six Big 12 schools used Shot Tracker prior to this year, but with the agreement, all schools in the league will use it.
“That has made it a smooth segue for us,” Big 12 Executive Associate Commissioner Jeff Jackson told BlueGoldNews.com. “They already had it installed. We only had to add four schools. It’s going to put us on the cutting edge of technology.”
Reports put the cost of ShotTracker at approximately $45-50,000 per court, but the Big 12 would not confirm any of those numbers.
The announcement and implementation of ShotTracker for all league team coincides with the NCAA’s approval of the sending of real time statistics and video to coaches and staffers on the sidelines during games during the 2021-22 season.
“That was without question one of the most intriguing parts of the deal,” Jackson observed. We knew that was coming, and we think it will be a big help to coaches during games.”
While game data is important, Cheng is perhaps even more enthusiastic about the benefits that the data from practices will bring.
“I’m really interested in breaking down practices,” he confirmed. “How many shots do we get up per drill? Are we getting all of the movement and work that we think we are? The data can confirm that, or show areas where we can improve.
“Also, it’s a great player development tool. Guys can evaluate everything from every game and practice, and they can use it on their own. All the managers know how to set it up and do it for them, so they can use it even when they come in on their own. Someone might look at the data and say, ‘I’m shooting 20% from inside the paint. Maybe I’m not practicing enough. Or I can watch film and see if too many of my shots are contested or if I’m not looking at the rim.'”
ShotTracker has already bestowed some benefits, as in one game last year.
“At Iowa State, they made something like seven threes and all of them were from the left corner,” Cheng recalled. “It was just the same play, and we identified that. I mentioned it to one of the coaches during the game and I’m sure they talked about rotations on the defense. You never know how much it helped but we won the game.”
With a staff of old school coaches, there might be a notion of some resistance of such a flood of data and analytics, but Cheng has found that head coach Bob Huggins has been very open to the information provided, and that it meshes with many of the things he teaches, such as ball movement and defensive rotations.
“Will he use it all? No, but he will look at it and incorporate things he sees into our game planning and practice planning,” Cheng observed.
If all of this sounds overwhelming, well, this is just the first step. Jackson notes that much of the tracking industry is still in its nascent stages, but he sees a time in the not-to-distant future when it will be a standard across the NCAA. Cheng, the data visionary, is already envisioning more synergy, such as marrying it with the data coming from the GPS trackers many athletes already wear, which calculate distance covered, top speeds produced and the like.
“Pairing this with video will be great,” Cheng said. “There are so many opportunities and so much room for expansion. If we can get it so that we have all the data, the speed and jumping and shot tracking and ball movement, and then have that paired up with the video, all in one app, that would really be powerful.”
Advancements in this arena aren’t surprising to Cheng, who has carved a valuable spot for himself in the Mountaineer program.
“It’s been awesome, and I’m lucky to be in a program that understands the value of it,” said Cheng.