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Steve Donahue hired as mens basketball coach Credit: Holden McGinnis , Holden McGinnis

It’s Nov. 23, 1998 and Penn basketball is up against a tough task — No. 7 Temple, a team that has had the Quakers’ number for the past 17 meetings.

But that night was different. Led by 22 points from Penn’s Michael Jordan, the Quakers would secure an overtime victory and fans would storm the court. In that crowd of fans was Nakia Rimmer, the now-math professor was a graduate student at Penn at the time.

Turn the clock forward to present day, and Rimmer still has the same passion for Penn basketball.

“I’m a spectator. I went [to Penn] as a grad student in the late 90s. I experienced the Michael Jordan-Ugonna Onyekwe years. So I lived the Princeton, Brian Earl, that rivalry,” Rimmer said excitedly. “This is in my blood, I want that back so much! It’s coming back.”

In the upcoming season, Rimmer will serve as more than just a spectator as he, along with a small group of undergraduates, will be working on basketball analytics projects for the men’s basketball coaching staff. The group will likely be around five to 10 students next semester and will seek university recognition as a student group.

The endeavor started off almost as if by chance.

“I was walking down Walnut and [assistant] coach [Nat] Graham was walking the other way. This is late March, early April,” Rimmer said. “He knew I taught math, knew I went to the away games. He says, ‘You think we can get together a group of students who would be interested in analytics?’”

Rimmer and a group of students met with Graham and new assistant coach Joe Mihalich Jr. — a math major at Nazareth College — a few days later.

Thus far, Rimmer and his students have only worked on a few projects, but expect to have more to work on once the season comes into view. The group plans to attend games and practices and find ways to take their analysis beyond what’s commonly shown in the box score.

“Last season, or maybe a couple of seasons ago, I was at a game and Stu Suss [Penn’s statistician] was agitated and he was like ‘It’s upside down, the stats are upside down!’ I got the box score on my phone, and I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Rimmer remembers.

“Apparently it was offensive rebound percentage. Defensively, the average is to get two thirds of the possible rebounds, but it was upside down, [the other team was] getting two thirds offensively. That was my first experience [with advanced stats].”

The coaching staff hopes to utilize the staff to improve both their scouting and to help advise in-game changes. By having student analysts at games and practices, the team will be able to better inform their decision-making.

“I’d be foolish not to utilize the resources here and the type of kids that you get at [Penn],” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “To have an analytical staff come to every practice and evaluate all the things — I can give them things, but they can add some thoughts of what they see.”

Many basketball programs utilize students or outside services to perform statistical analysis for them; Penn is far from the first to take this approach. For example, Duke recently installed SportVU cameras, which are able to track player movement, in Cameron Indoor Stadium and is working on an application to give fans access to historical player data.

Looking across the Philadelphia sports scene, analytics have clearly taken a hold of the city of brotherly love. General manager Sam Hinkie has taken an analytics-minded strategy in rebuilding the Sixers, while Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has applied sports science to every aspect of his team’s training and preparation.

While most NBA teams derive analysis from SportVU cameras, the Palestra, like most college basketball arenas, isn’t equipped with that sort of technology.

Regardless, Rimmer believes there’s plenty to be seen beyond the box score. And for a Penn team that’s looking to turn around its fortune behind strong recruiting classes and a new head coach, every detail — whether it’s determining how freshman Sam Jones gets open for three-pointers or the best way to utilize three guard lineups — can make an impact.

“This building, the Big 5, isn’t good enough now to win the Ivy League,” Donahue added.

“You need to be really sharp.”

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