Arizona vs. Wisconsin: Miller vs. Ryan, and analytics vs. old school

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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Arizona had just survived a wrenching, writhing, West Regional semifinal Thursday night that resembled something from the pro rodeo circuit. Almost immediately after the handshakes, a knot of Wildcats assistants pulled out their phones to track a parallel universe.

"It is," said Ryan Reynolds, Arizona's director of basketball operations, "the first thing we do. We all look at our phones."

Sure, the Wildcats beat San Diego State to reach the school's second Elite Eight in four years. But they'd also held their lofty standing in KenPom.com. And that's what mattered at least as much to a certain basketball subculture.

Arizona was No. 2 in the popular Ken Pomeroy college basketball rankings, No. 1 in his adjusted defense and No. 19 in adjusted offense.

Got all that?

If you do, you're part of the analytic elite who see the game differently. Moneyball has infected roundball. Pomeroy is a math, blogging, basketball savant whose indexes have become mainstream. That's just the beginning. Schools like Arizona will pay six figures to set themselves up with scouting services that can break down, in the words of one service CEO, "all 600 ball screens" Wisconsin's Sam Dekker has set this season.

And you thought the federal government might be intrusive.

Therein lies the difference in philosophies not only here at Saturday's Arizona-Wisconsin West Regional final but in sports at the moment. Analytics are either a revolution or have lit the fuse on group overthink.

"Looking at some numbers doesn't make a guy a better rebounder or better defender or better shooter," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.

It might even be responsible for what many pundits have called a general erosion in the quality of the game. Nine years ago, Garrick Barr was a Phoenix Suns assistant with an idea: Start a video scouting service. Now his Synergy Sports Technology has an estimated 97 percent penetration rate among Division I men's and women's programs.

Scoring continues to decline. Barr has a theory.

"I've been talking to coaches and they've said it's because of Synergy," he said. "There are no surprises. They all scout each other."

Old-school Bo calls his style "something about the gut." The 66-year old coach doesn't know KenPom from a pom pon. He probably thinks defensive efficiency is checking to make sure a taillight isn't out.

"He wouldn't know how to run any apps on his phone," Wisconsin assistant Greg Gard said. "His texts are one word -- 'yes,' 'no,' 'maybe.' "

Arizona's 45-year old Sean Miller, a rising star who grew up in the laptop age, worships at the altar of Pomeroy with his dizzying array numbers, blogs and that app. Pomeroy has redefined the game for more than a decade, so much so that he is part of its fabric.

"I look at [KenPom] about 10 times a day," Miller said. "At night I look at it. I look at it about our own team. I look at it with teams we're going to play, teams that are in the tournament. It's actually a problem with my wife. She hates KenPom.

"You become addicted to it. The information is so real."

But so is a pen and paper. Ryan proudly claims to have charted points per possession since he was at Wisconsin-Platteville beginning in the mid-1980s. All that takes is simple division and a work ethic. If players don't meet a certain point-per-possession in practice, they run extra.

At least in Bo's corner of the world, the game hasn't lost its soul.

"I don't think it has for us," Gard said, "because a lot of decisions Bo makes are based on gut feeling and instinct and past experiences. Tendencies can tell you one thing ... but it's still about what you do with your team."

Everyone from nerdish, snobby bloggers to learned beat writers to ops guys swear by modern analytics. Even Bo would have to approve of his team's KenPom numbers at the moment: Only Duke, Creighton and Michigan are higher in adjusted offensive efficiency. Only Georgia State has a lower turnover rate.

The Badgers also don't foul a lot. Less than 27 percent of opponents' shots come from the free throw line. (Thanks to CBSSports.com's Matt Norlander for the research.)

To paraphrase Nick Saban, is this the way we want to play the game? Apparently, yes.

"You're like, 'Is KenPom picking us to win?' " Reynolds said.

Here's an indicator of the analytic gap between two coaches: Ryan embarked on a rambling 3½ minute anecdote Friday about how his late father -- a former high school coach -- told a young Billy "White Shoes" Johnson to steal home.

Having slid into third, Johnson faked an injury, then took off for the plate on the next full wind-up by the opposing pitcher. He made it.

"So his gut feeling was," Bo said of dad Butch, " 'In order to win this game, this is what I have to do.' "

Miller prefers the byte-size nuggets provided by Barr and Synergy. Barr went to high school in Redondo Beach, Calif., with Paul Westphal. Later, the two coached together at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix. In 11 years with the Suns, the technology for Barr went from videotape to embedded links.

Then he pretty much created an industry. When Reynolds woke up Friday, Synergy had delivered the complete Wisconsin scouting report to his in-box.

"Like Kleenex," Barr said, "we made it into the mainstream. Everybody's a client."

Oh yes, for those of you without the KenPom app, he picked Arizona to win 67-63. Pomeroy says the Wildcats have a 64 percent probability of winning.

"He's got everything you can think," Reynolds said, gazing at his phone.

 
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