At all of the Northwestern apparel shops in Evanston, one of the featured items is a shirt that reads "Nerdwestern." That makes sense for a school that ranks 12th in the US News college rankings and is Internet-famous for its book-loving fans.
But ironically, when it comes to football coach Pat Fitzgerald and basketball coach Chris Collins, the "Nerdwestern" mantra doesn't really fit.
In an era when advanced statistics suddenly appeal to the masses rather than a niche audience, the coaches of NU's two revenue-generating sports teams are rebelling. That seems odd, considering that advanced statistics have aided in major program-building for a number of teams — Butler basketball and Oregon football are the most prominent example — and no programs could use more building than the Wildcats'. Still, advanced stats in Evanston are confined to the media and the fans, far away from the athletics facilities on Central and Ashland.
At Northwestern, of all places, that doesn't make much sense.
If you follow NU football, you know that "stats are for losers" probably only trails "Go Cats" as Fitzgerald's favorite saying. After yet another loss in which Fitzgerald ignored advanced statistical suggestions, we pointed that out. But despite the losses — the irony! — we got more of the same throughout the season: tough man football cliches, rather than numerical analysis.
Fast forward a few months and enter Chris Collins. Collins was the Wildcats' top choice to fill the head coaching void at NU, and since he arrived in Evanston, he's occasionally voiced his stance against statistics. He coaches by "instinct," he said. As one NU blogger pointed out, that's basically like "throwing *stuff* at the wall and hoping it sticks."
After the Wildcats' win at Indiana on Saturday, Collins reaffirmed his stance: "I'm not smart enough to do that analytics stuff. Efficiency and stats, that's not me."
I highly doubt that because by all accounts, Collins is a smart guy who is surrounded by a lot of smart people at a top-ranked university. Someone could decipher simple efficiency numbers. But more important is that it appears Collins misunderstands statistics. To most people who denounce stats, there are two kinds of people: stats people and basketball people. Stats threaten the way things have been done in the past because they're new, and a lack of understanding causes worry. But that's where the "anti-stat" thesis is flawed. Statistics don't replace coaching. They don't replace fundamentals and player development. Rather, they can help coaches better understand their teams and find out what their players do best. Good coaches use statistics to help them do their jobs better.
Collins doesn't like efficiency? That's strange, because all efficiency does is take tempo out of the equation. It calculates points per possession, because by any objective measure, that is a better evaluator of offensive success than points per game. Maybe Collins hates offensive efficiency because his team is historically terrible at it, and the advanced stats do less to hide that fact. But ironically, there are advanced stats to help with that dilemma, too, and Collins has actually started figuring out solutions that advanced stats could have told him a month ago.
The biggest change is NU's commitment to get the ball inside to Alex Olah. Considering that he was the offense's most efficient player player for quite some time — he's just behind the lesser-used Kale Abrahamson now — and was used on less than 20 percent of possessions, that should have been changed long ago. Collins also said the Widlcats need to post up Drew Crawford more and allow Tre Demps more flexibility in the offense. Those are both great ideas, since Crawford is just as good as Olah at posting up and Demps is the best isolation player, according the Synergy.
This year, Northwestern isn't going to make the NCAA Tournament, so it's not a big deal that Collins came around late on finding some statistically helpful solutions to the offensive woes. But in years when the Wildcats are on the bubble, using statistics to find solutions earlier in the season could make the difference.
Often times, coaches are don't like statistics because they're a concrete way of holding them accountable. For instance, statistics make it a lot harder to accept baseless cliches as the reason for losing a game. But if coaches embrace statistics, they'll probably find they'll stop losing games for reasons that could have been avoided.
It makes sense that Collins isn't a big fan of statistics, since his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, doesn't like them, either. At Duke, Collins and Krzyzewski could recruit anyone they wanted, and their success was due more to their superior talent rather than their instinct-over-statistics philosophy.
But at a place like Northwestern, where there will never be superior talent, Collins will need to exploit every mismatch he can, and he'll need to get as much out of his players as possible. Statistics can help him do that, just as they have helped other programs that don't have the luxury of winning every recruiting battle.
Northwestern is full of people who use advanced analysis to help them become the best at what they do. They know that facts, not "feel," can do that. Perhaps the Wildcats' coaches should follow suit.
Because stats might be for losers, but having a 5-7 football team and a 9-10 basketball team sure doesn't feel like winning.