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USF men’s basketball team rises amid sea of numbers

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Kyle Smith started second year as the head coach of the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team on Friday. (Courtesy Christina Leung/San Francisco Athletics)
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Since arriving at the University of San Francisco, Kyle Smith, the head coach of the men’s basketball program, has never shied away from sharing his grand ambitions for the storied program.

Last year, Smith’s debut with the Dons and USF bucked expectations: They placed fourth in the West Coast Conference after the coaches pegged them as the second-worst team in the preseason poll.

The Dons hit the 20-win plateau and made an appearance in the College Basketball Invitational.

“I think Univeristy of San Francisco has a proud tradition and we need to kind of get ourselves back in that market,” Smith said a day before the Dons opened the season against Long Beach State on Friday night.

To continue that rise, USF has recruited aggressively and upgraded its non-conference schedule, which features meetings with Stanford and Arizona State.

“If we have success, we’ll know we’re in the conversation as a postseason, NCAA tournament team — in time. Is it this year? Maybe,” Smith said, punctuating his statement with a laugh.

“But I think the program, I think the support’s there,” Smith continued. “The history’s here. And that’s our eventual goal, to become one of those programs consistently [in the] postseason.”

And then there are the numbers. So many numbers.

“We’re really finite on little [things]. Like … we’re crazy with analytics here. It’s too many, in fact,” Smith said, adding another chuckle.

Smith’s staff has numbers for everything.

“We have like 50 stats that we keep on each live-practice situation,” Smith said. “So we give them a lot of feedback.”

“We have 10 different types of passes that you get scored on,” Smith added. “So we can really drill down on measurement and goals that way — like just improve individually, which also improves the group.”

War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center, the home court of the Dons, has been outfitted with the same motion-tracking cameras that populate all 30 NBA arenas.

The technology allows teams to monitor every move a player makes, check if they’re getting tired and even grades the performance of referees.

After practice, Smith and his staff congregate to study the film and evaluate the results.

“We have our own internal stats,” Smith explained. “Basically, our own internal player-rating system. That’s the best way I describe it. So we have our own University of San Francisco PER — if you’re an NBA guy.”

PER refers to player efficiency rating, a metric developed by John Hollinger, a former statistician turned Memphis Grizzlies exec. It’s the granddaddy of advanced basketball stats, a rating system which endeavors to summarize all of a player’s contributions in a single number.

For Smith and his coaches, the goal is to uncover the outliers in performance — for better or worse.

“It’s challenging because these are human beings,” Smith said. “They’re 18 to 22 year-olds. You can’t treat them like they’re machines.”

The players have been receptive. They don’t know any better and it worked last year, Smith joked.

Additionally, the Dons utilize Ken Pomeroy’s data. When it comes to collegiate hoops, the former meteorologist, blogger and columnist is often equated to Bill James, the godfather of baseball analytics.

Pomeroy runs KenPom.com, a one-man shop, where he provides a flood of numbers, including his College Basketball Ratings for all 351 Division 1 teams. Pomeroy bases his ratings on a proprietary algorithm and refuses to reveal the formula.

He’s been rating all 351 teams since 2002, which is also the last time it looks like has website got a redesign.

Pomeroy is an authority for head coaches like Smith. Brad Stevens, now of the Boston Celtics and formerly of Butler, told ESPN he used Pomeroy’s math to to craft his game plan for the 2010 national championship game against Duke. Pomeroy’s data is also prized by bettors and bookmakers looking for an advantage.

On Friday, USF was rated No. 116 in the country and fourth in the WCC — matching the preseason coaches poll. In concert with Pomeroy’s intel, Smith and staff also pore over FIBA stats, international numbers and junior college reports.

Then there’s the shrouded USF PER.

Chase Foster, one of two seniors on the team, had the biggest positive impact a season ago — according to the numbers.

“He’s really made a jump leadership-wise and I think he’s really poised to have a good year,” Smith said. “I think people will be surprised by him.”

Smith is constantly looking for the next measurement that will give his club an edge — even if he hesitates at implementing them at first.

“It’s a challenge figuring out what’s important to us and what really works,” Smith said. “Even I, sometimes, question myself when the numbers are there.”

So far — using a small sample size — the numbers are working out.

kbuscheck@sfexaminer.com

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