April 15, 2024

Meet the ‘secret weapon’ in Alabama’s Final Four run: Analytics guru Michael Schwimer has many roles for Tide


PHOENIX — The dervish of Alabama basketball has no handle, no moves, no game, no rep, really. But the dervish of Alabama basketball also cannot be stopped. Michael Schwimer is all at once a floppy-haired, ball of energy, forward-thinking, idea man. Hanging around State Farm Stadium this week for the Final Four, you’ll notice him way before you know him.  

Just don’t try to name him. There are 14 assistant coaches and support staff listed on Alabama’s web site. You cannot find Schwimer’s designation on that list.

“He’s our secret weapon,” assistant coach Ryan Pannone said. “He’s a beautiful mind.” 

Analytics are as common in basketball as the stepback these days. Everyone has an angle, or thinks they do. KenPom.com references outnumber quotes in game stories. Small fortunes are spent subscribing to Synergy. 

But here’s the thing about analytics. Transferring them to the actions of the actual players in a game so instinctive like basketball is the challenge. NC State’s DJ Burns Jr wouldn’t dominate many weight rooms but his weight surely translates around the basket. 

Point being, not everyone has that angle. They might think they’ve cornered the market. At Alabama, coach Nate Oats, his assistants and players think Schwimer is the market, as the 38-year-old CEO of Big League Advantage, a East Coast-based sports analytics firm.

How many analytics guys run the numbers but also push out the scouting report, develop the recruiting strategy, basically assemble the roster, and also game plan?

“We finished the game, we’re eating dinner,” Pannone said describing Sunday’s postgame meal after the Elite Eight win vs Clemson. “Schwim says. ‘Do you want the [UConn] report tonight?’ I said, ‘You know I want it.’ This is 1 ½ hours after the game. The smile on his face was one of joy.”

Before revealing a sliver of that game plan (more on that below), consider Schwimer’s involvement is so deep, mystical and effective that Oats struggles for a title for the former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher.

“You know what, a consultant GM would be a good way to put it,” Oats told CBS Sports. 

That’ll work despite Schwimer acting like he wants neither the credit nor, really, the money. When he met Oats two years ago at the Final Four in New Orleans, his contract was hammered out in about a week — without Schwimer exactly asking for a salary. 

“We trust our work so much we’ll work for nothing,” Oats recalls Schwimer saying. “Just a big bonus when we win the whole thing.”

The whole thing is at hand. Alabama has gotten to its first Final Four replacing the entire coaching staff. Five transfers from mid- to low-major programs populate the roster. Leading scorer Mark Sears (Ohio) is second in the SEC. Grant Nelson was a first-team Summit League pick at North Dakota State who was recruited by the likes of Northern State, Minot State and Minnesota State-Moorhead. Nick Pringle came from Wofford and Dodge City (Kan.) Community College. Guard Aaron Estrada arrived from Hofstra

They’ve all jelled for this moment because they fit the model Schwimer and Alabama have created. Oats is a guy who arrived at Romulus (Mich.) High School 22 years ago with $78 in the team’s budget. He left 11 years later having established what he called “a 7-Eleven out of my classroom.” He’d load up at Sam’s Club with Cheetos, Capri Suns, Pop Tarts and gummies, selling them for a profit to the students to fund the basketball program. 

In time, there was a line out the door. 

“It was like crack cocaine,” Oats said, “Hot Cheetos for those kids.”

Michael Schwimmer with Alabama’s Jarin Stevenson after Saturday’s Elite Eight win vs. Clemson,
Big League Advatntage

When he left Romulus to be a Buffalo assistant in 2013, there was $20,000 in the budget. Oats had purchased a couple of those fancy “shooting guns” for $6,000 each to enhance practices. 

Oats’ Sam’s Club card still reads, “Romulus Boys Basketball.”

So the fit had to be right. Sears, Pringle and sophomore guard Rylan Griffen decided to return. That was after losing first-round MNA Draft picks — Brandon Miller (second overall to Charlotte) and Noah Clowney. 

What was left became the highest-scoring Alabama team in history. 

Bama has gotten here despite losing 11 games and falling to a No. 4 seed. Three of those losses came consecutively to top 10 teams in December. Four of them have come since Feb. 24. None, though, when it has counted in the tournament. 

Oats being that former high school math teacher with a kinesiology degree, he’s all in on win probability. That’s what this is with Schwimer in the lead, basically, a form of basketball card counting — what’s likely to happen based on past results. Oats’ love of analytics is no secret. Turning over a large chunk of the team to Schwimer, also a minority owner of English soccer club Leeds United, is the surprise. 

“We do, literally, everything,” Schwimer said. “[We assist with] who do we get in the transfer portal? How do you build the team? Then the skillsets around each player. Then I sit down for 90 minutes with each player before the summer even starts. I figure out motivational factors for players.”

That’s not a consultant. That’s a combination of Dr. Phil with a calculus background.

While developing into one of the MAC’s better players at Ohio, Schwimer said Sears fit Alabama perfectly despite not being “a top 50 portal guy.” Sears is 6-1, appears to play smaller but has become a natural scorer. In his second season at Bama, Sears is second only to Tennessee‘s Dalton Knecht in the SEC. According to Schwimer, Miller was a 26% 3-point shooter in AAU who was projected by Team Schwimer to be way better in college  — 37%. In his one and only season at Alabama, Miller shot 38.4%. 

How can Schwimer project something like that?

“I can’t get into that,” he said.

It’s no secret at Alabama, they play an NBA style. Maybe the ultimate NBA style in college. According to in-house study, Alabama does a better job of improving players’ draft stock than anyone in the country.  

“We’ve proven it is the best place to get ready for the NBA,” Oats said. 

The coach considers any possession a good possession that ends in a free-throw, a 3-pointer or a finish at the rim. Translation: Forget those mid-rangers.

They win by applying those laws of probability. Defensively, part of the strategy in the Sweet 16 game against North Carolina was to match up the 6-foot-11 Nelson against smaller guards inside. Let them shoot from outside. Unorthodox? Sure. When guards Elliott Cadeau and Seth Trimble came out hot from long range, the natural reaction would be to change the defense. Schwimer gave Oats credit for sticking with it. 

“Reverting to the mean,” Oats described the expectation. 

That is the mathematical formula that states, long-term market prices always go back to their average level. Shooters who can’t shoot even eventually prove it. Cadeau and Trimble came into the game having made 19 3-pointers all season. In the first eight minutes they were a combined three-for-three. But the law of averages worked out. After that hot start, the pair combined to shoot only 1 of 4 from the arc. In the second half neither played more than five minutes. 

“We tried to force the guys that they didn’t want to shoot, [to take] shots that they didn’t want to shoot. That was a big part of Schwim’s game plan,” said Pannone, who arrived from the New Orleans Pelicans where he was an assistant coach. 

There was more to it than that. It helped that Carolina standout guard RJ Davis finished 4-of-20 from the field. 

“If you’re not a math guy you don’t understand the long-term expected value,” Oats said. “You can overreact. We didn’t overreact. We stuck with the plan. Those two guys barely played in the second half … Over the course of 40 minutes, you’ll be alright. Over the course of four minutes it may not come out.”

The Tide won by two. At halftime against Clemson, Alabama was winning by only three. But Schwimer quickly assured the team that everything was OK. According to “expected value,” the Tide should have been winning by 11.

“That plan is fine, stick with it,” Oats remembers Schwimer saying. 

The Tide won by seven. 

In Schwimer’s two seasons, Bama has been a No. 1 overall seed last season and advanced to its first Final Four this season. Alabama’s actual players might not play harder than anyone else. No one is thinking harder. 

The players are so educated to the analytics that they celebrated “putting a 1.31” on Clemson. That referred to points-per-possession. The average hovers slightly over 1.0. 

“We don’t make the Final Four without Michael, Jacob [Kohn, BLA data scientist] and their team and the information they gave us,” Pannone said. 

So who is this dude with no title but plenty of juice?  

Schwimer claims to have video of “every shot every player has taken” from age 15. That takes some clarification. There are all kinds of AAU film out there, but it has to be purchased. A team of 50 employees assists the Virginia-educated Schwimer in his breakdown. 

His only two college clients are Duke and Alabama. Both made the Elite Eight. The floor is yours, Schwim. 

“I think Jon Scheyer and Nate Oats are the two best coaches in the country,” he said.

Of course you do. 

In the Clemson postgame, Oats made a brief reference to a “third-party analytics company we use.” In one sense that made it sound like Alabama was using “Three Men And A Truck” as movers. But it triggered the basketball community. Schwimer said a dozen teams have reached out since Oats’ quote. 

“He never mentioned us by name,” Schwimer texted. “No one knows, until you tell the world.”

That’s not exactly true. Schwimer has already been featured by CBS Sports in 2022 for his work dealing in player futures. For a cash lump sum provided by Schwimer, college football as well as minor league baseball players sign over to him a percentage of all their future earnings in perpetuity.

Schwimer’s most famous client might be San Diego Padres’ outfielder Fernando Tatis Jr. who signed a 14-year, $340 million contract. Tatis used the upfront money – not revealed by Schwimer – to improve his training as a teenager.

“The only thing these people do is give you a better life,” Fernando Tatis Sr., the player’s father, told CBS Sports.

There is a different, better life these days at Alabama. In the 50 years from C.M. Newton in 1969 through Avery Johnson in 2019, the Tide went to 21 NCAA Tournaments. In five of those they advanced to the Sweet 16. In 2004 Alabama was eliminated in the Elite Eight by eventual national champion Connecticut.

Look who is standing in the way again. 

This week, Schwimer revealed part of the game plan for UConn. He can’t help himself. Word salad alert. 

“We can say, ‘Let’s not double [Donovan] Clingan in the post,’ Schwimer began. “If we do that, we know what they’re going to do. We can say, ‘Here are the expected points at every possession. Here’s how many fouls he’s going to draw. Here’s the final score of the game.  If we double with the guard, here’s what is going to happen … If we smash down and do an instant double on the catch. What about pick and roll do we hard hedge? Do we show?’ “

That’s for the Tide to figure out in their beautiful minds. 

Pannone has never seen anything like it. 

“Have you seen the movie ‘Troy’?’ the Alabama assistant asked. “He’s Achilles. He’s the ultimate fighter, him and Jacob. They’re de facto GMs … Oftentimes as coaches you may have a game plan but to find the data behind the thought is difficult.”

In Greek mythology, Achilles is known as the greatest Greek warrior. Schwimer is that beautiful mind with a 4.62 career ERA, and analytics innovation that has gotten results. 

It is a staff of innovators. Alabama director of scouting and analytics Adam Bauman was mentioned frequently in research for this story. Also at 38, Pannone is in his 21st year of coaching. He coached at his Florida high school (Oldsmar Christian) after graduation.

His career took him to the D League, G League, Asia, Europe, junior college and the Middle East. You would think he’d have a big-time B.S. detector if Schwimer wasn’t the real thing. 

“Ten years ago, 11 years ago I was sleeping on people’s hotel room floors because I couldn’t afford it,” Pannone said. “Trying to go out to lunches and dinners to network. I’d say, ‘Ah, I’m not hungry because I couldn’t afford it.”

In 2016 he won the Israeli League title with former NBA star Amar’e Stoudamire. There is no pressure like facing angry fans who attacked the team bus, he said, after his squad fell behind 2-0 in the championship series. When Hapoel Jerusalem roared back to win the championship, those same fans court-stormed the streets in celebration. 

“We won the Sweet 16 [game] and a player asked me, ‘Is this the biggest game you’ve ever won?’ Pannone said. “I was like, ‘We went to the Euro Cup Final Four. We won the Israeli League. There were flares going off in the arena. It’s a pretty big deal’ …

“Then we go to the Final Four. He asked me, ‘Is this the biggest?’

“This,” Pannone replied, “is the biggest.”





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