Behind the numbers: How Youngstown State uses analytics to gain an edge on its opponents

Staff photo / Greg Macafee Youngstown State head coach Jerrod Calhoun, holding a clipboard, discusses a plan with his coaching staff. From left are Ben Asher, Calhoun, Ethan Faulkner, Paul Molinari and Mantoris Robinson.

YOUNGSTOWN — It started with an interaction on social media, and quickly became a focal point of Youngstown State’s program.

Late one summer night in 2021, YSU men’s basketball coach Jerrod Calhoun was looking at ball screen coverage on Twitter, and came across an analytical breakdown from Eric Fawcett, a high school basketball coach in Edmonton, Alberta, who also covers the Florida Gators online.

Later that year, YSU’s coaching staff attended a coaches’ retreat during that offseason, and was introduced to HD Intelligence, a young but budding basketball analytics company founded by a pair of Harvard graduates that also works with fellow Horizon League programs Oakland, Detroit Mercy, Cleveland State and Milwaukee.

Those two interactions soon gave rise to the Penguins’ use of analytics — essentially, using statistics and mathematics to find meaningful patterns of data — as a means to try to gain an advantage over opponents.

It doesn’t end with game preparation. Programs like YSU use analytics as a year-round venture for everything from scouting the transfer portal to developing players.

The process has been transformational.

“Those numbers can tell you a lot. It’s changed my whole coaching philosophy, to be honest with you,” Calhoun said. “It’s made me a better coach. It makes you aware of things you may not know, and we try to implement some of those things.”


At its core, the use of analytics is based on numbers and formulas.

On HDI’s end, one of its co-founders, Matt Dover, was able to build models the company has developed and used over its four years while fellow co-founder Colton Houston brought experience in college basketball, having served on Alabama’s staff from 2010-2019.

“Initially it was just kind of his technical skills and my basketball experience sort of coming together and saying, ‘Well, what would we like to do, and then is it doable?'” Houston explained. “So we were able to build out through building some models and then coding. … But it was a pretty heavy lift.”

What it’s become is a full-service suite that Houston says tries to mirror what NBA teams have in-house departments for — ranging from scouting opponents to building schedules.

According to HDI analyst Zach Steinberg, who has worked directly with YSU this season, most of the Penguins’ focus with HDI’s offerings is inward.

“We’re talking a lot of postgame reports, we’re talking about full-season box scores that we send bi-weekly that’s going to give them a snapshot about how they’re playing, how they’re trending in conference and how they’re trending overall,” said Steinberg, who played college basketball at Division II Illinois-Springfield and served as a graduate assistant at Division I SMU.

Steinberg also watches YSU’s games “about 90 percent of the time” and will jot notes as the game progresses. After the game, the postgame report — called an HD Box Score — is fully automated and is quickly sent to the coaching staff to break down after a game. In the meantime, Steinberg will write out some comments from his observations and the numbers “to try to tie it all together.”

And away from games, Calhoun and his staff are free to call Steinberg at any point. The team meets with HDI about four to five times a year, Calhoun says.

Outside of the season, HDI provides a transfer database for coaches to use as they parse through the portal — something the YSU staff has made an emphasis of in recent years.

The database contains every Division I player, whether they’re in the portal or not, and has a rating scale similar to what you’d find in a video game like Madden or NBA 2K. Players are graded from 1-99, though the upper 40s is about the lowest a rating goes, Steinberg explained.

Coaches can apply filters in the database ranging from how a player has trended over his or her collegiate career to the individual skill sets a player has. HDI also offers a service to perform a “deep dive” on a player to get an in-depth look when programs like YSU identify a player in which they’re interested.

“You can find exactly what player you want,” Steinberg said. “… I call it the new Netflix binge. You can open that thing up and just get lost in it for three hours looking at random players and random schools. So if Youngstown State finds a player they’re interested in, we’ll do a deep dive on them. We’ll go dig in a little bit deeper in the data of what they did this past year and what their different attributes are.”

Meanwhile, the Penguins also have Fawcett at their disposal as the program’s “special ops guy,” as Calhoun affectionately calls him. During the season, he operates at the discretion of YSU’s staff and helps with game planning against specific opponents. All of Fawcett’s work is on the offensive side, he notes.

Fawcett will use advanced statistics to look for weaknesses in a particular opponent’s defense as well as opponents’ tendencies, just as YSU’s staff does. From that, he’ll work through film — lots of it — to find clips of plays or actions that could exploit that particular weakness, whether it’s in a zone, man-to-man, a baseline out of bounds situation, etc.

“It’s ideally within the structure of what YSU already does, and the same thing from a personnel standpoint,” Fawcett said. “So I’m looking at similar teams or similar players and looking at those kinds of things where they’ve been hurt in the past.”

From there, he and the team use a program called Synergy, which allows the two parties to make edits in film and analytics and share them with each other. Fawcett also will write his thoughts on a Google Doc for the team to read through.

“He basically does his own scouting report on the other team, and we communicate back and forth, whoever has the scout with him, making sure the numbers, and what we’re saying, align with what he’s seeing from a statistical and analytical standpoint, and it always does,” YSU associate head coach Ethan Faulkner said.

Fawcett also has a model by which he can optimize YSU’s nonconference schedule for maximum success — an area on which Calhoun puts a premium, Fawcett said.

For example, it helped Fawcett and the coaching staff determine that Notre Dame was a team with which the Penguins could compete. YSU took the Fighting Irish to the wire in what ultimately was an 88-81 loss on Nov. 13.

“When it comes to what teams you want on your schedule, particularly what high major teams were going to buy Youngstown State, who do we think YSU could beat?” Fawcett said. “I had all the teams that wanted to buy the Penguins, and I said, ‘Hey, this is what I think you can beat them, this is what I don’t think you can beat them or it would be harder to beat them.’ I kind of laid things out in a number of ways analytically, and we settled on, ‘Hey, I think we can get Notre Dame.'”


Having the numbers is one thing. Putting the data into action is another.

To make analytics a successful venture, Calhoun says the first step is simply understanding what the numbers show.

That came with a learning curve, according to Houston and Fawcett, but it didn’t take YSU’s staff long to catch on. On HDI’s end, it was mostly learning terminology and statistics used by the company. Meanwhile, Fawcett says it was about helping the Penguin coaches to understand what data to examine.

Fawcett noted, “It’s interesting now because at this point last year, it was still the coaches (saying), ‘Hey, we want to get more into numbers, but we’re not totally sure what we need to be looking at.’ And now, Ethan’s a savant. He knows exactly what he’s doing with numbers. So I give the staff tons of credit for seeing where they needed to improve it, and now it’s like a whole new staff.”

The Penguin coaches have taken it a step further, Steinberg said.

“One thing that’s really cool about Calhoun and his staff is they have their own theories they bring to us,” he noted. “It’s one thing that we offer data, we offer our thoughts, but it’s, ‘Hey, Zach, I have this theory. What do you think about this, what does that look like?’ That’s really hard to do. … It’s a really cool, creative way in how they use it.”

Once the coaches have a firm grasp of how to look at the data, Calhoun says it’s about simplifying to help the players understand and also backing up the staff’s message with hard data and numbers. That aids in game planning for opponents as well as developing players throughout the season.

“A lot of coaches would throw a ton of numbers out there and be very wordy, but that’s kind of not the point of the analytics,” Calhoun said. “I think coaches need to understand the numbers more, but you have to have three or four things you can bring to your team. … We’ve got to be able to make them understand it. If you can’t get your players to understand it, then it’s not going to work.”

With that, Calhoun and his staff can enter a game with clearly defined goals based on the data, and then can deduce whether the Penguins achieved those goals in the game.

“We have targets we’re trying to hit on offense and defense,” Calhoun said. “It gives us our efficiency on offense in every single statistical category you can think of. So right after a game, I know why we won or lost based on the analytics. Every player is graded on offense and defense, there’s an offensive and defensive breakdown.”

That’s been pivotal for Youngstown State, particularly on the defensive side. Faulkner, primarily a defensive coach, says the staff was able to look through the numbers and determine exactly where improvements were needed, courtesy of the HD boxes that HDI supplies.

For YSU, it was defensive rebounding. Once a source of frustration for YSU, the Penguins now rank at or near the top of the Horizon League in defensive rebounds per game, opponent rebounds per game and rebounding margin.

“We found that when we hit our goals in defensive rebounding, the rest of the defensive numbers kind of fall into place,” Faulkner said. “So I think the numbers really tell you some clear ideas of where improvements need to take place and what you need to be emphasizing in your practices.”

It’s also given the coaching staff the ability to give players tangible data that shows their impact on a particular game in addition to determining which lineup combinations work best based on the data.

“I think what’s helpful, and what I’ve learned from it, is it’s an accountability reference for our guys,” assistant coach Mantoris Robinson said. “It breaks down each individual area … of what is your impact on the floor. So for our guys who care about winning, it kind of keeps them on edge and allows them to just self-check and say, ‘Hey, I have to get better.’ I think for me, it’s one of the most important and really impactful things.”

Of lineup configuration, Calhoun added the staff can use the numbers as a means to determine who should start, who should finish and, generally speaking, the best lineups at varying points of a game.

“You’re just trying to find that little edge each game that can make a difference in the results,” he added.

The numbers also have served as a recruiting tool. HDI has its transfer database, and Fawcett also has a system by which he can project a transfer’s potential impact at a new school.

That’s especially critical for a program that’s relied heavily on the portal for success. YSU’s entire starting five consists of players that transferred into the program.

And with the ability to break down a player’s numbers so deeply, Calhoun and his staff are able to not just hone in on potential targets, but formulate their pitch to a particular player.

“We can kind of break down when we’re recruiting Adrian Nelson, ‘Hey, in order to get you to be a professional basketball player, you have to take and make some threes. You have to improve your assist-to-turnover ratio.’ So it kind of helps us in our recruiting pitch, as well,” Calhoun said.


All parties involved agree: Analytics are just part of a larger equation for success.

What’s made Youngstown State’s entrance into the analytics world fruitful, both Fawcett and the crew at HDI say, is that the Penguins knew what their identity would be and have used the data to help augment it.

“One of the places we try to get to with our clients — and I definitely think we’ve gotten there with Youngstown State — is integrating HDI into kind of your overall program philosophy,” Houston said. “So for example, if you know as a program that you want to play fast and take a lot of threes, then you’re going to use our tool differently than if you’re a program that’s all about defense and rebounding.

“So I think where we’ve seen Youngstown State specifically take the next step this year is when we get on all these Zooms with the staff just to check in and look at lineups, look at full-season reports and talk through things, they know who they are. They know how our tool fits into their system.”

To that end, YSU implements analytics, but won’t let those numbers dictate every decision or strategy. Calhoun says that the data plays a big part, but the staff also has to know when to trust its own eyes and mind.

“It’s a tool in the toolbox,” assistant coach Ben Asher added. “It’s not the entire toolbox, but it’s another way that we can hopefully get these guys’ attention. Video is one way, analytics are one way. We look to combine all that to make them see the light.”



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