As a Virginia Tech student during the early 1990s, Ken Pomeroy was struck by the Hokies' new-found football success. He attended home games and applauded the likes of Frank Beamer, Antonio Freeman and Maurice DeShazo.
But Pomeroy was most attuned to Tech basketball, back-to-back 10-18 seasons notwithstanding. He returned to campus early after the holidays, lest he miss marquee encounters with the likes of Morgan State, and saw his loyalty rewarded as a senior when Ace Custis and the Hokies won the 1995 National Invitation Tournament.
Pomeroy majored in civil engineering at Tech and earned a master's degree in atmospheric science from the University of Wyoming. He became a meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
Those grown-up credentials notwithstanding, Pomeroy couldn't shake his affinity for basketball and analytics. College coaches nationwide couldn't be happier.
Pomeroy's website, Kenpom.com, has become daily surfing material for coaches, media and fans interested in new-aged, tempo-free statistics that rate teams' and players' efficiencies in myriad categories.
Virginia ranks fourth nationally in the old-school metric of scoring defense, but given the deliberate pace of most Cavaliers' games, just how good are they defensively?
Virginia Tech's Erick Green leads Division I in scoring, but when you factor in shooting percentages, minutes played and turnovers, where does he rank as an offensive threat?
Miami is undefeated in the ACC and ranked second by the Associated Press, but what are the keys to the Hurricanes' unexpected success?
Pomeroy endeavors to provide answers and, like Nate Silver in politics, forecast results.
"It wasn't like there was one moment where the light bulb went off," he says from his Utah home. "I'd always been into sports ratings and stuff, like the Sagarin ratings (in USA Today), what Bill James was doing with baseball. It took awhile for me to think about college basketball in that way. It kind of took off in the early 2000s."
Then New Mexico's head coach, Ritchie McKay was among Pomeroy's early disciples.
"If you're happily married and you want to stay that way, you can't take this home, because you could legitimately spend hours on this deal," says McKay, now Virginia's associate head coach.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas uses Pomeroy's site to study the teams he's scheduled to broadcast.
"It allows you to just dig in and find what a team is good at and not good at," Bilas says.
For example, Pomeroy's site will reveal what percentage of a team's possessions result in turnovers, and where that ratio ranks nationally. Kenpom.com also computes "effective field-goal percentage," which takes into account the extra value of a made 3-pointer.
"When you're filling out your (NCAA tournament) bracket," Bilas says, "Kenpom is helpful to see how teams' strengths and weaknesses match up."
Pomeroy's most basic ratings are free, but delving inside the numbers costs $19.95 a year. He politely declines to reveal total subscriptions, but says wryly, "I quit my day job last summer."
"That's been the cool thing about this," Pomeroy adds. "A lot of coaches have bought in. I don't know how many programs subscribe to my service, but I'm guessing it's over half of Division I coaches. And that, to me, gives my work tremendous validity.
"I knew it was pretty useful … but the coaches are ones whose jobs are basically on the line."
The day before Virginia's home game against Florida State, McKay goes to Pomeroy's site to study the Cavaliers and the Seminoles. Virginia has dropped consecutive road games at Wake Forest and Clemson, and McKay is hunting for any edge against the defending ACC champions.
"Instantly you can see where they're strong and where they're weak," he says.
Florida State has changed dramatically. Ranked among the top 15 nationally four years running in defensive efficiency — the calculation is rooted in points allowed per possession but also considers quality of opponents' offenses and site of each game — the Seminoles are 124th entering this contest.
McKay also notices that Florida State's turnover ratio is a dismal 250th. The Seminoles give the ball away on nearly 20 percent of their possessions.
"There are some holes in their team," McKay says. "How do you lose to Mercer and South Alabama and Auburn, but beat Maryland, Clemson (and) Charlotte? It will be a very interesting game because they usually have our Kryptonite, which is great athleticism. When we can't stay in front of people, our defense struggles a little bit."
McKay turns his attention to Virginia.
According to Pomeroy, the Cavaliers average 60.6 possessions per game, 339th among 347 Division I teams. That number is critical in determining their defensive and offensive efficiencies.
"Defensively, we're eighth," McKay says, "which is phenomenal."
Virginia has since dipped to 21st, still among the top five percent nationally. In five of Tony Bennett's seven seasons as a head coach, three at Washington State and the last four at U.Va., his teams have finished in the top 20 defensively.
Offensively, Virginia ranks 250th nationally in scoring. But Pomeroy reveals a far clearer picture than that traditional measure charted by the NCAA.
Based on scoring, possessions and effective field-goal percentage, the Cavaliers are 42nd in offensive efficiency, which would be their best season since 2007, when they finished 30th.
A red flag to McKay, which he shares with Bennett: "Our free throws per game is 286th in the country. In our losses, we're averaging only 12 attempts per game. In our wins, we're averaging 17.5. So we're not getting to the line and making it easy on ourselves in games we lose."
Sure enough, the following day against Florida State, Virginia attempts a season-low six free throws. But stout defense carries the Cavaliers to a 56-36 victory, the Seminoles' fewest points in 34 years.
The Florida State turnovers that McKay noted in Pomeroy's numbers? The Seminoles commit 18 in 56 possessions, nearly one per three.
Florida State's .65 points-per-possession that afternoon remains Virginia's best defensive effort this season against an ACC opponent.
Miami already has secured its best ACC record in nine seasons of membership, not to mention its first NCAA tournament bid since 2008. Coach Jim Larranaga charts much of the Hurricanes' improvement by Pomeroy's stats.
"Last spring after the Final Four, we met with the team and I asked them, 'What was the key to getting to the Final Four?'" Larranaga says. "Of course they all said, 'You just have to have great players.' I said, 'OK, where do you think these teams that got to the Final Four rank in terms of defensive efficiency?'"
Louisville was first, Ohio State second, Kansas fourth and eventual champion Kentucky ninth.
"So I said, 'If we have aspirations of being a great basketball team next year, and we want to do some damage (in the tournament) and have the hopes of making the Final Four, then we've got to be a much-better defensive team,'" Larranaga says. "I showed them our stats."
In 2011, Miami ranked 99th in defensive efficiency, 224th in opponents' 3-point percentage. Last year, Larranaga's first with the Hurricanes, those rankings improved to 73rd and 181st.
That wasn't good enough for Larranaga, whose 2006 Final Four team at George Mason was 18th in defensive efficiency. To encourage his Miami players, Larranaga used an academic metaphor.
"In basketball," he told them, "to get an A, you need to shoot for top-10."
Entering play Saturday, the Hurricanes were fifth this season in defensive efficiency, 30th in opponents' 3-point percentage.
That defensive improvement was evident in Miami's 54-50 victory over Virginia on Tuesday. The Cavaliers' .89 points-per-possession were their lowest in the last 10 games, and they missed 10-of-15 attempts from beyond the arc.
"I'm a great believer in numbers," Larranaga says. "The numbers tell a story. We use (them) for motivation."
Pomeroy is hardly the first to push beyond basketball's basic numbers.
Former North Carolina coach Dean Smith was among the first to evaluate his team's offense and defense based on points-per-possession. His pre-shot clock, four-corners delay notwithstanding, Smith preferred a fast tempo, and his theory was that a defense that yielded 70 points in a 70-possession game was better than one that allowed 65 in a 60-possession contest.
Pomeroy applies such reasoning to all of the sport's metrics, removing the bias of pace to create what he calls "tempo-free" stats. Again, he's not alone.
John Hollinger, a University of Virginia graduate, worked eight years as ESPN's basketball analytics expert before becoming the Memphis Grizzlies' vice president of operations.
Long known to college coaches, Pomeroy's numbers gained more widespread notice in 2008, when before the NCAA tournament his overall rankings had Kansas and Memphis 1-2. The Jayhawks defeated the Tigers in the national title game.
Acclaim created interest and demand, and subsequently, Pomeroy's site has become impeccably detailed, with more avenues than midtown Manhattan. Dating to 2003, he has year-by-year charts on teams, players and coaches.
For example, Virginia Tech's Green not only leads the country in scoring but also ranks fifth nationally in offensive efficiency behind only Michigan's Trey Burke, Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, South Dakota State's Nate Wolters and Creighton's Doug McDermott.
VCU's turnover percentage on defense leads Division I for the second consecutive season; Duke's No. 70 defensive efficiency rating last year was its first outside the top 15, a liability exposed by Lehigh in an NCAA tournament upset.
Virginia and Pittsburgh are arguably the most surprising teams in Pomeroy's overall rankings. The Panthers are eighth, 12 spots ahead of their AP poll rating; the Cavaliers didn't receive a single vote in either the AP or coaches' top 25, but they're 20th at Kenpom.com.
Pomeroy's game-by-game projections have Virginia losing only to Duke the remainder of the regular season to enter the ACC tournament 22-9, 12-6 in conference.
"Their success is almost all tied to playing good defense," Pomeroy says as he looks at the Cavaliers' page. "One of the advantages of what I do is I can take the pace of play out of analysis. A team like Virginia, they play slow and most teams that play slow, people just look at the points they allow and they say, 'Wow, they must have a really good defense.'
"So anybody that plays at a slow pace is going to have a really good points-per-game allowed. But this kind of confirms they really do have a good defense."
The linchpin of Pomeroy's efficiency ratings, for teams and players, is the number of possessions in a game. The question is, how does he obtain that number?
Pomeroy concedes the calculation is imprecise. While turnovers, field goals, and opponents' defensive rebounds definitely end a possession, only some free throws do, forcing Pomeroy to use a predetermined percentage for free throws.
"Probably for a vast majority of games, we're within a possession or two," he says.
Pomeroy's other data is culled directly from the boxscores he receives electronically and that are automatically fed into his programs.
"When I first started out, that was the biggest challenge," he says. "I had all these ideas, and I just felt like there's no way you can put this on a website and update it in real time. It's just impossible to manage that information.
"I wasn't a big computer programmer back then either, but I kind of got into it, and (learned) this actually is possible. … It's a pretty efficient operation at this point. It probably takes 15 minutes to update everything. It really doesn't require a lot of effort on my part unless there's an error in the data."
Pomeroy, 39, blogs, consults with coaches, does interviews and crunches numbers. He watches countless games and attends perhaps one a week. His annual postseason junket is to the Mountain West Conference tournament, Las Vegas being the antithesis of his Salt Lake City home.
Leery of the dome viewing experience, Pomeroy has never been to a Final Four. Here's guessing this basketball celebrity could find a ticket.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times