Hinsdale Central graduate Kevin Pauga building name in sports analytics – Chicago Tribune
Shortly before a college basketball game last month, Kevin Pauga stood in the tunnel near the basketball court and flipped open his laptop to reveal what he calls the “master plan.”
Pauga, a Hinsdale Central graduate and Michigan State assistant athletic director, is known for this massive and complex 60-megabyte Excel spreadsheet.
“That’s her,” he said as the file opened on his screen.
In an era of increasing reliance on analytics in sports, Pauga has become a reputable source for college basketball metrics with his findings published on his website, kpisports.net named for Kevin Pauga Index. Because of his budding reputation, his name is being mentioned in the same breath with experts like Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin.
The website is the creation of a man who charted the Major League Baseball schedule as an elementary school student and who can recite late-1980s Cubs rosters from memory.
His Excel file has grown to monstrous proportions since he began developing the system the summer before his senior year as a basketball manager at Michigan State. It started as a way to chart televised games for use by coaches scouting potential opponents.
It is now an intricate database with 290 columns and counting. He only publishes a portion of his exhaustive data.
In January, Pauga was asked by the NCAA to join high-profile analytic experts in Indianapolis as the organization seeks to include more data in its process for seeding the NCAA tournament. The selection committee has used his data and others’ as discussion points. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, the chairman of the selection committee, has been quoted saying KPI has “become one of the favorites in the room.”
Pauga correctly predicted 67 of the 68-team field this year, yet he recommends using a variety of analytics.
“The objective here is not about me or any of this,” he said, pointing to his laptop. “It’s about, are there more data points to provide to people making more informed decisions? … It’s like in third or fourth grade and you just write down the answer and the teacher gets mad at you. I’m showing my work. You might get mad at where someone is, but I’m showing my work.”
KPI is more results-based than some other analytics models. He values games based on a negative-one to a positive-one scale.
“I’ve got a starting point and I’m adjusting point by point,” he said. “What does it mean to be on the road or home against this team? What does it mean to win by this score? What’s the quality of the other team? I’m taking each of those points and trying to shift it back to zero to negate for any difference that makes your game different than my game.”
Pauga’s growing personality profile is no surprise to those who know him best.
As an 8-year-old, he collected baseball weeklies and as a hobby that continues today, he would create and try to improve upon Major League Baseball’s schedule by looking for unique patterns. That’s charting 2,430 games that take place in 26 weeks — the most complex of professional sports schedules.
As a high schooler, along with serving as a four-year student manager for Hinsdale Central’s basketball team, he also coached Clarendon Hills Little League and created and organized a schedule for the league.
Most Little League coaches don’t chart pitches and at-bats. They don’t even use a scorebook. But Pauga charted statistics while also acting as the third-base coach.
“Every pitch he would write something,” his brother Scott said. “It always seems so effortless. I didn’t think much of it. When you’re around amazing, that just becomes the norm.”
As a student at Michigan State, where the numbers guy majored in journalism, he began tinkering with the Excel file and adding columns. He kept the information mostly to himself, but in the locker room staff and managers would somewhat jokingly ask, “What’s our KPI?”
“I was looking for more of an explanation about what each game meant,” he said.
He noticed his mock tournament bracket matching up well with the actual bracket, including where teams traveled.
“Frankly myself and a lot of people were like, ‘OK, sounds great but don’t know if I believe that,'” said his brother Brian, also a one-time student manager at Michigan State and now director of player personnel with the NBA‘s Timberwolves. “But then it’s a situation where it got to Selection Sunday and his predictive formulas could predict a lot of the NCAA tournament and who at what seed. This was 2004-05. Coach (Tom) Izzo would come to him the weeks leading up to Selection Sunday: ‘Who are we going to be playing? Who are pods of teams we’re going against?'”
Pauga eventually published his data in 2013 on the website he runs alone. He has programmed the site to automatically upload each game’s results into the formula.
He jokes that Izzo hired him three times: as a basketball manager, as a video coordinator after graduation, and then after a stint with the Big Ten as Michigan State’s director of basketball operations.
His dream job, of course, is to schedule MLB games. But Pauga’s job at Michigan State, he said, fulfills him.
“I get a kick out of scheduling,” he said. “I get a kick out of patterns. I get a kick out of what a win means; are people overreacting? I post rankings and let them be. Are there outliers? Sure. But I can probably tell you the outliers and maybe why the outliers are created.”