IUPUI grad student crunches numbers on winning sports analytics team

Nikhil Morar was part of winning team at prestigious MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston

seven people stand on stage at sports analytics conferenceView print quality image
IUPUI School of Informatics graduate student Nikhil Morar, third from right, was part of a winning team at the sixth annual Hackathon presented by ESPN at the 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston. Photo courtesy of MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

It's how many points they score. It's how quickly they run. It's how fast they swim. It's how far they throw. Or it's how much they lift.

Statistics are at the core of every sport. In an event where one-tenth of a second or a single point can make the difference between victory and defeat, sports analytics highlight trends and probabilities that many in the sports world are looking to for any and all advantages.

IUPUI School of Informatics graduate student Nikhil Morar showcased his talents on the biggest stage in early March by winning the sixth annual Hackathon presented by ESPN at the 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.

"Winning the hackathon means everything," Morar said. "It really opened a lot of doors with different sports teams across the country, and I also made connections with ESPN and ShotTracker."

Morar, who is getting his master's in data science with a specialization in sports analytics, is one of two students in the sports analytics track of the program. He is the first IUPUI winner at the prestigious conference, and the IUPUI Sports Innovation Institute funded his competition.

"Our vision when we created a partnership with the School of Informatics to create a sports data analytics degree was to have students participating and competing in events hosted by MIT Sloan," said David Pierce, director of the IUPUI Sports Innovation Institute. "Nikhil has been a leader since his first day on campus, and it is no surprise that he was able to succeed in a competitive national contest."

Morar's team used player and ball tracking data from six men's and women's college basketball games to examine shot charts and shot arcs to evaluate the accuracy of a shot going in.

All 35 participants in the hackathon received the same data from ShotTracker, a sports technology company, and were tasked with seeing what they could discover with the open-ended data. Each team was given six hours to dive into the data and code and then build a presentation.

"If I were doing it alone, I don't know how I would've been able to put it together," Morar said. "It was stressful, but everyone else was doing the same thing."

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Morar, left, and his teammates met at breakfast before going on to win the Hackathon presented by ESPN. Photo by Richard Messina, ESPN

The team advanced from the three-minute first-round presentation that day to the five-minute final presentation, which they won.

If the group would have had more time, Morar said, he thinks his group could have broken out more data that would be helpful for rebounders. Knowing how a shooter's tendencies of ball spin, shot location and shot arc would help determine where the ball is likely to go following a miss, important information that would help most basketball players gain an advantage.

A victory was born over some sports talk and bacon and eggs at a breakfast networking event. Participants in the Hackathon are not required to team up, but Morar hit it off with fellow attendees Erik Johnsson from Harvard University, Arnav Prasad from the University of Chicago and Saiem Gilani from Georgia Tech University. Sports is known as a great unifier, and the foursome had an instant connection.

"We are all sports nerds," Morar said. "After we started talking, we realized we had different backgrounds working with data and sports knowledge and thought we would be a good team."

Morar's team met Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets' general manager and founder of the conference, onstage as winners of the Hackathon. The Rockets are known as one of the NBA's most analytics-forward teams because of the way Morey has embraced the numbers.

"I really think that's going to be the future of sports, and he's just ahead of everyone else," Morar said. "With a big data set, you can help inform coaches and players to make a decision both before and during games. You can use in-game data to help the team during timeouts or inform decisions after games. I think it really helps player fitness as well."

The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is a wide collection of high schoolers interested in breaking into studying sports analytics; college students looking to network and find jobs; television networks looking for innovation; and coaches, players and executives from sports organizations and leagues wanting a leg up on the competition.

Morar had the opportunity to pick the brains of the some of the best athletes and minds in their sport. He chatted with New York Giants star running back Saquon Barkley, four-time Olympic gold medalist and 11-time WNBA All-Star Sue Bird and NBA coach David Joerger. For the Tennessee native and first-year Jaguar, it was a life-changing opportunity.

"I was going alone from Indianapolis, and I didn't know how it was going to be," Morar said. "I had the schedule, and I was a bit nervous about competing in the Hackathon. But from forming the group and making connections, winning the competition really put the cherry on top."

Morar's love of basketball was formed watching Kobe Bryant and matured as he became a Memphis Grizzlies fan. He hopes to one day work in the analytics department of an NBA front office. As a data analyst for the IUPUI Sports Innovation Institute and a graduate student, he is grateful for the exposure IUPUI has granted him to sports organizations.

"I really want this program to grow, especially being in a sports city," Morar said. "I think there are a lot of opportunities that can be built off this degree."