Soon after Alex Varlan was hired as the video coordinator for the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team last summer, he called Aaron Barzilai, a friend and former colleague with the Philadelphia 76ers.
For the previous three years, when Varlan was on the men’s staff at Oakland University, the team had used numerous advanced statistics resources, including the popular website run by the independent analyst Ken Pomeroy.
But when Varlan began looking for similar statistical applications for the women’s game, he was disappointed at the paucity of options. He thought Barzilai, who has provided statistical analyses for N.B.A. front offices for a decade, could help bring the same insights to help women’s teams.
After multiple discussions with Varlan, Barzilai relented. And in December, he started , a subscription website devoted to N.C.A.A. Division I women’s basketball.
“My thought was that it was probably something between a business idea and a public service,” Barzilai said. “I wasn’t really sure how big the market would be, and I think that still remains to be seen.”
Men’s sports have been committed consumers of analytics for years, particularly Major League Baseball and the N.B.A. Every franchise now employs people to make sense of the numbers it collects, or to blend them into new, more involved, more specific measurements. At the same time, fans increasingly have warmed to analytics as nuanced measurements of the value of a player or the strength of a team.
Women’s sports leagues, however, have rarely had their own advanced analytics. The W.N.B.A. introduced statistics like effective field-goal percentage, defensive rating and true shooting percentage on its website two years ago, and while the National Women’s Soccer League has discussed the idea of making advanced statistics available, its website currently offers basic categories like goals, assists, shots and saves.
While many of the newer basketball metrics remain mysterious to casual fans, to a studied one, statistics like effective field-goal percentage — which gives more value to 3-pointers than 2-pointers — can offer valuable insight. The same is true for points per 100 possessions (which adjusts for variations in teams’ pace of play) and usage rate (which estimates the percentage of plays a player is involved in while on the court).
And in their granular details, advanced stats can make a good player look even better. Take the Missouri junior Sophie Cunningham. She is a fairly well-known player, a two-time all-Southeastern Conference guard averaging more than 18 points a game. That figure ranks her in the top 80 nationally, but what advanced stats reveal is that Cunningham is actually one of the best scorers in the country because of her efficiency. She is averaging 1.36 points each time she tries to shoot, including when she is fouled and sent to the line. That ranks sixth in the country, out of more than 3,100 qualifying players, even though her field-goal percentage ranks only 127th.
Kara Lawson, a former University of Tennessee and W.N.B.A. guard who is in her first year as a television analyst for the N.B.A.’s Washington Wizards, believes that traditional statistics like scoring and rebounding averages seem to carry more weight in perceiving the value of players in the women’s game than in the men’s.
“A large part of that is because of the analytics,” she said. “If there’s nothing to look at beyond the traditional box score, then people just tend to go off of reputation or the traditional box score, which isn’t representative of what’s helping to win basketball games.”
When Varlan, the Tennessee assistant, worked on the Oakland men’s staff during the 2015-16 season, for example, the coaches noticed an advanced statistic that showed the team was one of the nation’s worst Division I teams in defending pick-and-roll plays. So Coach Greg Kampe and the other assistants watched film and came up with adjustments in how they defended such situations; by last season, Oakland had become one of the nation’s best teams in that category, and ended up winning the Horizon League regular-season title.
“The analytics are very important,” Varlan said. “It starts conversations is what it really does. But you need to have a coaching mind looking at them to figure out what’s important and what isn’t important.”
A former basketball player at M.I.T., Barzilai said he began to follow the growth of advanced analytics while doing graduate work in mechanical engineering at Stanford. A few years later, he created his own website, Basketball Value, while working as a management consultant in Princeton, N.J.
That website’s examination of adjusted plus-minus data caught the attention of N.B.A. front offices and led to paid consulting jobs with the 76ers and the Memphis Grizzlies over the next few years. In 2012, the 76ers hired him as their director of basketball analytics, a role he held for the next three years. Since leaving the 76ers, he has done work for other N.B.A. franchises on a freelance basis.
Now he is juggling those assignments with Her Hoop Stats, a concept that grew on him as he and Varlan began their discussions last summer.
Barzilai acknowledged it would take time for his site to match the reach of other subscription services in other sports. Her Hoop Stats applies advanced mathematical formulas to basic statistics to better understand the numbers, but it doesn’t use video, so it couldn’t tell you which women’s team is bad at defending pick-and-roll plays, for example.
He would not disclose how many people have paid the $20 annual fee to gain access to the full range of information on the site, but he said coaches and broadcasters had thanked him merely for creating it. He said he planned to expand it to include W.N.B.A. data this year, and possibly Division II and III women’s programs in the coming years — if there is an appetite for the information.
“I’m hoping this will contribute to better understanding the women’s game and then that will help grow the game a little bit,” he said. “If it can be something more, that would be awesome.”