Meet the Hokie using data to revolutionize college hoops statistics
November 11, 2019
Long before the college basketball world came knocking on his door for insights, Ken Pomeroy was sitting at the intersection of data and hoops in his dorm room at Virginia Tech.
“Back then, we didn’t have the internet and it was a very tedious process to keep track of who was winning our [NCAA Tournament] bracket challenge,” said the 1995 graduate. “But I wrote this computer program to input all the entries so I could spit out the results right after the games were over on a particular day and post them on my door.”
Today, Pomeroy is considered a pioneer of charting all of college basketball’s 353 Division I men’s teams with advanced statistics. The Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings, available on his website, www.KenPom.com, are routinely referenced by the sport’s top analysts and utilized by the game’s best coaches. Pomeroy has also contributed articles to ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and The New York Times; advised multiple NBA teams; and currently writes for The Athletic.
Last month, Pomeroy traveled back to Blacksburg from his home in Salt Lake City, Utah, to share insights from his field and his journey from civil engineering to using math to analysis basketball on the national stage.
“I’m definitely an example of you not necessarily needing to know what you want to do when you get to college,” said Pomeroy. “And that’s totally OK.”
For students like Lynda Nguyen, a senior studying computational modeling and data analytics (CMDA), being able to have in-person conversations with an expert of Pomeroy’s caliber was both insightful and encouraging.
“To know that I have had the same struggles [as Pomeroy] of handling so much data is very assuring,” Nguyen said. “It was great motivation for me to go and better the predictive models I have been developing for my job applications for Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association data science positions.”
The passion for sports and data led Nguyen and fellow CMDA student, junior Stephen Olsen, to launch the Sports Data Analytics Club with the help of Lizette Zietsman, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, this fall.
“When Stephen and Lynda started undergraduate research on the rating and rankings of sports teams in spring 2018, Ken's website became invaluable. Not only could we access data from www.kenpom.com, but Ken also provides a clear description of the methodology that he uses for the analysis and an interpretation and context for the results,” Zietsman said. “That semester we started talking about starting a sports data and analytics club, and when it was realized this fall, it was important for us to invite Ken to campus.”
With the help of the Department of Mathematics and the CMDA program, the club was successful in bringing Pomeroy to campus, just days before the new basketball season tipped, and providing students with an experience they won’t soon forget.
“It is incredibly interesting to hear first-hand from someone using data in such a high-profile manner, particularly in one directly related to sports,” Olsen said. “I have been a huge sports fan throughout my entire life, and sports analytics was a large reason why I came to Tech.”
It was actually Pomeroy’s interest in roads and bridges that led him from his home in Northern Virginia to the southwestern part of the state in the early 1990s.
“I was going to be an engineer and Virginia Tech had the best engineering school in the state,” he said. “It just seemed like the natural thing to do.”
Always drawn to college basketball, Pomeroy was a student during seasons of mixed success for the Hokies men’s squad. This included back-to-back 10-18 seasons, as well as the 1995 season in which the team won the year-end National Invitation Tournament.
“I went to every game,” said Pomeroy, who added his affinity for Hokie Hoops could also for a time be seen in his log-in name to websites.
“On ESPN [.com], you know you’d make an account, and my account name was like, AceCustis0 because I made it in like 1995 and just carried it forward,” Pomeroy said.
Following his graduation, Pomeroy spent about a year and a half working in road design before deciding to return to school, this time at the University of Wyoming, to study another of his passions – meteorology.
“For some reason I’d always been fascinated with Wyoming,” he explained. “And the weather’s really freaky there as well, so I figured, it’s got to be a good place to go learn about weather.”
While at Wyoming, Pomeroy began exploring the creation of ranking systems for different sports and using the university-supplied server space to push his work onto the internet for the first time. After a few early years of ranking high school football and lacrosse, around 2003 he shifted his focus to men’s college basketball ratings and began to explore writing pieces to explain his insights.
It wasn’t long before his hoops ratings were being mentioned by mainstream media members and Pomeroy’s site was at times generating 500 hits a day.
“It was something when I was just starting and the writing wasn’t that good and the insights weren’t that good, but I was starting to build an audience,” Pomeroy said.
By 2012, the site’s traffic created such a demand Pomeroy decided to leave his job at the National Weather Service and focus solely on college basketball. Though his passion is now is job, Pomeroy said it’s in no way taken away from his love of college basketball.
“People joke, do you really even watch the games anyway?” said Pomeroy with a chuckle. “I do. I watch a lot of basketball. I think I’m actually more interested in basketball because I run the website. I find interesting insights that I wouldn’t otherwise find and that draws me to watch a certain player or team.”
“I tell people, the numbers aren’t the only reason I’m interested in the game, but they definitely are a reason,” Pomeroy said.
Harnessing big data in such a way that elevates a personal passion is one reason Pomeroy is frequently mentioned not only in the math department, but also in the Department of Communication Introduction to Sports Media course.
“Ken is a perfect example of the type of person who comes to Virginia Tech, understands the applications of big data, and combines his love of sports with those applications and turns it into an incredible career,” said Bill Roth, a Virginia Sports Hall of Fame broadcaster and the Virginia Tech professor of practice who teaches the course.
Pomeroy said for current students looking to combine data and their own passion, his advice is simple.
“Learn from what other people have done, but realize you don’t necessarily have to do exactly what other people tell you,” he said. “Find your own path and do what interests you and, theoretically, that will lead to good things.”
Written by Travis Williams