March 10, 2015
Communications and Marketing
Who are the most valuable players in the NBA? How can teams improve their lineup and win more games?
Ask Saint Anselm College's very own sports data junkie—or one of the students in his mathematics elective, "Sports Analysis."
The course is all about using math to analyze pro and amateur sports. Stephen Shea, associate professor, considers the course "a perfect medium through which to teach mathematics and statistics." He is teaching sports analysis for the third time this spring.
Class discussions may cover the existence of a hot hand in sports, or an evaluation of team decisions on the court or field. Past student projects have included plans for NHL realignment and the effects of sweat on submission moves in ultimate fighting competitions.
With basketball season in full swing, (and with Shea's personal love of the game), the class currently focuses on basketball analytics.
"We have looked into the value provided by the new data collected by SportVU's spatial tracking system," he says. "Last season was the first in which all NBA teams collected and had access to this data. Most recently, we looked into reclassifying NBA player skill sets in the same spirit as Muthu Alagappan's work. We have also enjoyed a few laughs thanks to Charles Barkley's anti-analytics rant on TNT. Barkley refers to those that do analytics as 'idiots.'"
The class is open to students of all majors. Mathematics major Zachary Heckt '17 is fascinated to see how math comes into play when finding the right players for the teams in each league. "We are doing a project in which we look at what we think are important statistics in a sport of our choosing and redefine positions in sports to be more specific of the type of players there are," he says.
Besides teaching students how to analyze sports quantitatively, Shea writes books, blogs, and articles on the subject and often serves as a consultant to professional sports teams. He began consulting in 2013, after being a finalist in the Stat Geek Idol Competition at TeamRankings.com. The site's CEO told him that Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and one of the competition judges, liked his work.
"Realizing that professionals might be interested in my work was a major motivation to shift more of my research to sports analytics," Shea says. He now has a large network of connections within the NBA and NHL.
Shea co-authored Basketball Analytics: Objective and Efficient Strategies for Understanding How Teams Win in 2013 and recently published Basketball Analytics: Spatial Tracking.