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Davidson Wildcats Defy The Numbers, But Rely On Them Too

The Davidson Wildcats take on the Iowa Hawkeyes Friday evening in the men’s college basketball tournament. After the team moved into a tough, new conference, it wasn’t expected to have a very good season, let alone make the Big Dance. But you could say it was a calculated move.

Davidson was lucky to land freshman Jason Feldman.

One big thing for me is I wanted a small school with top level basketball,” says Feldman.

Last week, the Wildcats played a big game against LaSalle. Davidson had been behind almost the whole time, and then in the last few seconds Tyler Kalinoski sunk a shot. 

The Wildcats stormed the court and hugged each other. But Feldman wasn’t celebrating with them. He’s not actually a basketball player. He’s on the CatsStats Team with these guys.

“I’ve never played, I’m atrocious,” says Ross Kruse. 

“I’ve grown up watching a ridiculous amount, probably honestly, a pathetic amount of basketball,” says Grant McClure.

They’re all Davidson students who love basketball and love numbers.

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
CatsStats team members Ross Kruse, Grant McClure, and Abhi Jain.

They scour online stats and put together scouting reports on opposing players about how they tend to play and the kinds of shots they take.

At home games members of the CatsStats team aren’t watching the action so much as studying the location of where each player shoots.

All basketball teams use statistics to some extent. Those in the NBA and a handful of college programs spend big money to buy overhead cameras to record data and pay staff to analyze it. Davidson doesn’t have that. But it has Abhi Jain and his friend who sit on the sidelines.

We have a map of the court and we just point the plots on the map,” explains Jain. 

They then turn that data into heat maps showing shot percentages for regions of the court. Another student finds and rates efficiencies to see how Davidson’s lineup of players works together.

Credit CatsStats crew
One of the Davidson heat maps Jain and Feldman created using Chartier's code.

Assistant Davidson Coach Will Reigel says they get a report on their opponents before every game.

“That’s something we can look at and use and then kind of mix and match our guys in terms of who defends certain things the best way,” says Reigel.     

There’s been a lot of fine-tuning. The CatsStats team is led by Tim Chartier, who teaches math and computer science. He says the first report they turned in to the coaches was a 5-page essay and the analysis took forever.

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
Associate Davidson Professor Tim Chartier leads the CatsStats team.

“In the beginning, it took one of the students ten hours to do the first game.”

Now, it takes just ten minutes for them to format the data.

Several CatsStats members have graduated. One now does analytics for the Chicago Bulls, another teaches the theory in high school.

Davidson head coach Bob McKillop says his staff depends on the CatsStats team.          

I don’t think they affect performance, but what they do is affect the decisions I make in advance of game preparation as to who’s going to get shots, where they’re going to get them, which is the best side to run it on,” says McKillop.  

It’s not clear how much of Davidson’s success can be chalked up to analytics. But in some hard-to-measure way, it probably helped the tiny college beat the odds this year.