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M.Basketball vs. Delaware State Credit: Thomas Munson , Thomas Munson

With a first-year head coach, a new director of basketball operations and three true freshmen playing double-digit minutes per game in Ivy League play, it’s no secret that 2015-16 has been a year of change for Penn men’s basketball.

But a casual fan might not fully comprehend the gravity of the Red and Blue’s overhaul, as there’s far more to the program’s attempt to return to national relevance than just the figures seen on the Palestra floor on Friday and Saturday nights.

Led by former Penn graduate student and current Penn math professor Nakia Rimmer, the Penn Basketball Analytics Group is in its first year of operation, working to give the Quakers’ coaching staff an extra edge by dissecting advanced statistics from team practices and games. In its inaugural season, the staff includes Rimmer and six students, and has already been recognized by the University as an official student group.

“Just to see the numbers come alive, see the coaches implement their plans and know that the information we’re giving them works is exciting, and that’s what keeps me going,” said Rimmer, the faculty advisor of the Penn Basketball Analytics Group. “I dig through these numbers, spend hours and hours making spreadsheets, then I let go, come watch the games, and it’s awesome to see the numbers come to life, turn into strategy and then turn into wins.”

Since first-year coach Steve Donahue places such a clear philosophical emphasis on analytical research, it was only a matter of time before he reached outside the confines of the Palestra to find an external source of number-crunching assistance.

With Rimmer — whose time as a grad student happened to overlap with both Donahue’s tenure as an assistant at Penn and the playing careers of current assistants Ira Bowman and Nat Graham in the late 1990s — Donahue and his staff didn’t have to look very far to find a willing test subject, as Rimmer’s passion for both statistics and basketball existed far before the former Cornell and Boston College head coach returned to 33rd Street.

“I’ve always been a fan — a couple years back I was at an away game at Penn State, just taking the kids for a fun trip. It was a good game at first, but when Penn State started to take over, I noticed that the lead statistician for Penn, Stu Suss, was getting really agitated and I couldn’t figure out why,” Rimmer said, referring to a 58-47 Penn loss in Dec. 2012 in which the team allowed the Nittany Lions to grab 11 offensive rebounds on 27 missed field goal attempts. 

“I’d always been interested in numbers, but I never knew how deeply it could be implemented in basketball, and Stu knew that just based on the offensive rebounding percentage, that things weren’t going the way they should — ‘the numbers were upside-down,’ he said — so that’s when I first got interested."

“When Stu retired [at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season], I decided to look more deeply into it,” he added. “Once Coach Donahue took over, Coach Graham approached me and asked me to see if I could get together a group of students that might be interested in spending some time with it, and it didn’t take much from there.”

Consequently, for one of the school’s most die-hard basketball fans – even being known to still cancel Friday lectures in order to ensure arriving to road Ivy League doubleheaders on time – the opportunity to contribute to the team in an official manner was a dream come true.

“I was here during the Michael Jordan era, saw those great Penn-Princeton matchups back when they were the class of the league, and those were some of the highlights of my time in college,” Rimmer said. “I make an effort to travel to every road game I can, but even when I go to the games now, it’s still more watching for pure enjoyment.

“We know that we’re all part of the team now,” he added. “Although we don’t suit up, we’re part of the whole process, and that’s exciting.”

With the group being in its first year, there are some potential obstacles to its productivity, with the relatively small staff and the lack of University funding for the first 12 months being the most glaring. Still, the members have found ways to contribute to the coaching staff’s game-planning, with Rimmer focusing on opposing team’s statistical tendencies while his proteges work to help the Quakers improve their own game.

“What we [students] do is provide a statistical analysis of games and practices, and our aim is to give the team a competitive advantage,” College freshman Austin Rahmin said. “Specifically, what we’re looking at is things that don’t show up in the traditional box score but the coaches still want to emphasize in their strategies — things like ball reversals, paint touches, offensive rebound outcomes — and we try to collect this data and present it to the coaches in a simplified and efficient manner so they can use it however they want. The whole coaching staff — especially coach Joe Mihalich [a math major at Nazareth] — seems really excited about this project and really appreciative of what we’re doing.”

While the project’s benefits to the players and coaches are obvious, the group also provides thrills for its own members, as Rimmer and his students are offered proximity to the sport they love that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. None of the group’s members — Rimmer included — are paid for their contributions, but pure love of the game keeps them motivated to assist the Red and Blue in any way possible.

“I love basketball, I’m obsessed with it and I could talk about that for hours,” said Rahmin, who played basketball for Horace Mann High School (N.Y.) before suffering a serious back injury in his senior year. “It’s my dream to be a basketball coach — I want to win a championship and cut down the nets at the end of March one year — and for me, no longer being an athlete, I view analytics as a way to still help the team, because, ultimately, that’s what I’m passionate about.”

Still, although there’s no salary, professionalism does ultimately come first for the students involved. While all group members would consider themselves to be true Penn fanatics, they’ve come to understand the necessary separation between work and play.

“I think it’s really important when you’re doing analytics to keep objectivity first,” said Brian Freilich, a first-year graduate student at Wharton. “We’re all students and all began as fans before we started doing this analytics work, but when we have that hat on, it’s important to be bias-free and objective so that we produce results that drive real change.”

Ultimately, the group has already made an impact, but there’s more unquestionably more work to be done. With University funding to come for the 2016-17 season and a larger coalition of students expected to hop on board, the future is bright for Rimmer and his students to help Penn basketball work back to the top.

“I’d say some primary goals going forward are to do more advanced analytics – things like regression modeling to predict games – broadening our scope, possibly moving into other sports as well or helping the athletic department succeed on the business side of analytics, and simply increasing our membership base,” Freilich said. “We’re expecting some funding next year, which will allow us to travel to more road games and then perhaps purchase more technology to let us do more sophisticated work.

“It’s going to get more and more legit and it’s pretty legit already, so we’re really excited for what the future holds.”

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