By Laura McCaffrey

An Invaluable Addition to the Team

It’s 6am and the Ravens’ Nest is bustling. The squeaking of sneakers on hardwood, rubber basketballs drumming, feet pounding to and fro—a cacophony of activity. The Ravens women’s basketball team is in the gym for an early-morning practice.

And in a townhouse across town, quieter, a new member of the team works away. He’s not doing wind sprints or practicing his jump shot. His role is not to handle the ball, but rather to handle the Big Data. He’s not scoring points, but scoring insights.

Michael Armanious is the first ever basketball analytics intern at Carleton. He works with the Ravens women’s basketball team, analysing team data and industry trends to improve performance.

Giving Back with Passion

Launched in September 2018, the Basketball Analytics Internship program was established as the result of a series of collaborative discussions with a Carleton alumnus-turned-donor and his wife, a University of Calgary and Alberta College of Art and Design graduate.

“Carleton took a chance on me, and it’s the reason my wife and I have the things that we have,” recalls the donor, who has asked to remain anonymous. “We knew we wanted to give back, and we knew we wanted our contribution to be used for good. We wanted to offer something that would provide experience to students in their field of study. And specifically, we wanted to do something meaningful in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) area.”

As a long-time basketball and math enthusiast, the donor was excited about the prospect of helping to deliver an internship program related to basketball analytics. “I always loved math and I played basketball for many years—in high school and on the long-defunct Junior Varsity Cardinals team at Carleton. So this program ties in well with the passions I had growing up,” explains the donor.

The internship program is offered to graduate students in the Faculty of Science, with preference given to students studying predictive data science, analytics, applied mathematics and/or statistics. During the pilot phase, the goal is to fund two internship positions per year—one for each of the women’s and men’s basketball teams. The interns work directly with the teams and the coaching staff, and are supervised by Dr. Shirley Mills, an Associate Professor in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at Carleton.

“Personally, I love statistics and Big Data,” Mills shares with a laugh. “But a lot of students are more interested in sports. If we can use sports as a hook to get students excited about math, that’s a great thing for the university and for the students. There’s a lot of exciting things you can do with a degree in math or stats. The opportunity the donor has given us to expose students to this type of work is amazing.”

A Catalyst for Excellence

As one of the first of its kind in Canada, the Basketball Analytics Internship program has a promising outlook for the future. “In Canada, very few universities offer programs like this,” the donor notes. “There’s a huge opportunity for Carleton to be the preeminent school in sports analytics in the country—and maybe even one of the higher ranked schools in this field in North America.

“Our hope is that this serves as a catalyst for establishing a Centre for Excellence in Sports Analytics.”

If realized, this lofty goal will have major impacts on Carleton and its students. “It would create a reinforcing feedback loop,” the donor hypothesizes. “The reputation of Carleton’s School of Mathematics and Statistics would be elevated to an elite level, making students more desirable to external organizations and more likely to get a job in their field. This positive impact on student success may help the School’s recruitment efforts, which in turn would further contribute to its elite reputation.”

Mills agrees, noting that the program is already generating buzz. “Word gets around fast. Schools from across the country are hearing about the internship program; I’ve already had students express interest in joining the School of Mathematics for that reason.”

Creating Opportunities for Future Impact

Notwithstanding the prospective establishment of a Centre for Excellence, the immediate benefits to students are indisputable.

“Big Data analytics is an evolving field,” recounts the donor. “Sports analytics in particular has become ‘the big thing’ in the past few years. But the theory and logic behind sports analytics are transferable to other industries too—like health care, teaching and manufacturing. We’re confident that this program will give students the practical work and research experience that makes them attractive to outside organizations.”

When asked about the impact of the internship, Armanious—the only intern currently enrolled in the program—emphasizes the valuable experience he is gaining. “Context is so important in stats and analytics—you need to be able to relate the data to the subject matter so it actually means something. I’m learning how to work with others in that respect, and how to communicate effectively—how to present my findings in simple terms so anyone can understand.

“I’ve been playing basketball since I was a kid; it’s still my favourite sport to play and watch. I have a natural interest in sports analytics for that reason, but I’m developing a lot of skills that are transferable to other fields. I want to be able to take what I’m learning in this internship and apply it to a data science career in an area that allows me to have a positive impact on people’s lives.

“I can’t thank the donor enough for the opportunities that this internship is creating for me.”