BYU basketball is reinventing itself for the Big 12 with help from this man

The director of analytics strategy is convinced BYU’s path to competing in the best league in America starts with the numbers.

(BYU Athletics) Keegan Brown, Director of Video & Analytics Strategy for the BYU men's basketball team, has been hired to help the Cougars prepare for their move into the Big 12 Conference.

Provo • Keegan Brown was getting desperate.

The kind of desperation that makes even the craziest idea seem reasonable.

He had just interviewed for a job but hadn’t heard back.

So in the spring of 2020, Brown bought a plane ticket from Orlando to Salt Lake City on his own accord, took a cab to Provo, and showed up at the Marriott Center hoping somebody would let him in.

It was a miracle play, he admits. A Hail Mary to get a job he had applied for twice, but hadn’t gotten yet. And when Mark Pope let him in, he spent the next 48 hours pitching him on why he should be BYU’s next director of video and analytics strategy — a job akin to being the main architect around here.

“He likes people that go all-in,” Brown said.

Looking back on it now, Brown laughs. But it was a move so crazy it made Pope feel like Brown would fit right in with his fanatical, professor-like orbit of analytics. He needed a partner that would match his level of intensity. He chose right.

Now, the two of them are on a crusade few others in the sport would embark on. In many ways, they are tearing down the program to the studs and trying to rebuild it to the specifications of modern-day analytics. It’s the only path, they insist, to competing in the toughest college basketball league in America.

Coach and mastermind, buckled up for the ride.

“In the Big 12, we are going to have to thread the needle really carefully on how we can survive and excel in this league,” Pope said. “We are going to have to be a little bit different. So we are going to trust and use this data to open spaces that are unexplored.”

An obsession

(Rick Bowmer | AP) BYU coach Mark Pope reacts during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Missouri State on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, in Provo.

In order to understand Brown’s hire, and their grand plan, you have to understand Pope first.

The fourth-year head coach was born of analytics. He will tell you it was more so by necessity than design.

Pope was an average NBA player who bounced around overseas for a bit. In order to keep his professional career alive, he dove into analytics to gain an edge where he could. Using advanced stats to shape the game was a new idea back then, but he pushed the envelope to play nine years of professional basketball.

From there, he was hooked on what it could do for him. As Pope rose up in the coaching ranks, he convinced the head coaches he worked for to buy into analytics services like Synergy in their infancy.

As an assistant on Dave Rose’s staff at BYU, Pope convinced Rose to let him do analytics work with star guard Tyler Haws. The two would spend late nights poring over the numbers. Haws eventually became the WCC Player of the Year in 2014, averaging over 20 points per game.

“We started doing deep dives into everything about his game on the offensive and defensive side,” Pope said. “He was so desperate to find every ounce of getting better that he could. That was my first introduction to doing deep, deep dives.”

And as Rose saw the success he gave Pope more runway. He started using analytics to recruit.

Pope would often bring Rose recruits who had low usage numbers, but projected well in the data. Chase Fischer was one of those guys, a player who started just six games in two years at Wake Forest but turned into a mainstay at BYU. During Pope’s final season as an assistant, Fischer played almost 35 minutes per game and averaged 18 points a night.

“His points per possession [at Wake Forest], and just basic analytics, were really high,” Pope said. “I was going to Rose and saying this guy pushes the envelope in the numbers. He turned out to be a great player so he is a fun example.”

So it is no surprise Pope has turned it into a full-blown obsession as the head coach now.

He’s hired people like Nathan Bubes to get a full-time analytics staff up and running in 2019. And now he has Brown, who is attempting to make analytics a lynchpin of the Big 12 strategy.

“It is a huge part of what we are doing,” Pope said. “This summer, more than ever as we try to recreate who we are and a why, we are doing really extensive deep dives to try to figure out what the numbers can teach us.”

Brown and the gamble

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young Men's Basketball Director of Video & Analytics Strategy Keegan Brown, in basketball action between the Nicholls State Colonels and the Brigham Young Cougars, at the Marriott Center in Provo, on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022.

And that is where Brown comes in. His entire job is to push the envelope in any way possible as BYU prepares for the best basketball conference in the country.

Big picture, that can mean drastic changes, like what happened this summer. Pope, using Brown’s data, saw how far away BYU was from competing with the top teams in the country.

Despite finishing in the AP Top 25 two years, and making the NIT quarterfinals in 2021, the analytics told the story of a team that couldn’t generate turnovers or play fast enough to keep up on both ends of the floor.

So, Brown and Pope proposed a new-look system that spreads the floor on offense, puts a higher emphasis on shooters, and defends much more aggressively, risking fouls. BYU lost 10 players in the offseason and turned the page to recruit guys for their new system.

With Top-25 finishes comes job security. This is riverboat gambling: it could all go wrong.

“We were kinda looking at the Big 12 and the trends of the league,” Brown said. “Super athletic league, super athletic bigs and small guards. The pace is really slow and there is not a lot of shooting. So for us, we were trying to find the difference that could give us the edge. For us, it is space and shooting.”

And after that decision came the work of implementing it ahead of the Big 12. Brown spends most of his days doing research into how closely the analytics are marrying with what they are running. Then he and Pope will meet and talk about steps forward.

Brown uses three analytical systems to help him do it. There is Noah, a shooting system that tracks shots and arc and the types of shots players are taking. There is Catapult, which helps with injury prevention.

There is Synergy, too. Every day after practice, Brown compiles a Synergy report for Pope on each player. He can see how many points per possession a player had, or if a player is using a ball-screen action well (ball screens are a key part of Pope’s more spread-out offense).

“He is the only person in the country doing that as far as I am aware of,” Pope said.

If it is not about practice, Brown is also running numbers on potential recruits that would work well in the system going forward. He uses the example of current center Fousseyni Traore.

Traore, at 6-foot-6, was undersized and underrecruited. But the analytics say he is perfect for what they want to run.

“Just trying to find an edge anywhere we can,” Brown said.

The growing pain and the future

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University men's basketball head coach Mark Pope listens as newly hired assistant coach Kahil Fennell fields questions about his decision to take the job at the Marriott Center Annex, Friday, May 27, 2022.

Brown and Pope know this is a process, it is going to be difficult sometimes.

It already has been in the early part of the season. Point guard Rudi Williams came in to play ball-screen offense, but he has struggled with turnovers. BYU barely beat Idaho State in the season-opener.

“How much pain and suffering can you take to get through this growth process?” Pope wondered aloud.

But Pope is committed to this. He is committed to Brown, too. Brown has moved up to sitting on the bench during games, something most coaches don’t have their analytics experts do.

Also, BYU has invested more in the analytics department. Brown has six interns this year. He will likely have more, maybe even another full-time staffer, in the Big 12.

As Brown talks about bringing on more people to his team, he realizes the gravity of his undertaking. He has never been on a college staff before. A couple years ago, he was just an intern trying to get through a masters degree at UCF — desperate to get on Pope’s staff.

Now, he jokes, Pope can realistically start to blame him if things go wrong because of the voice he has the gamble on analytics.

But he is confident. He trusts the numbers. And the numbers will tell the story.