With the madness of March’s college basketball tournament about to begin, teachers might want to take advantage of one of this nation’s most popular sporting events to get students hyped up about math.
After all, the combination of math and basketball (and even a little science) could one day lead to a real job.
Just ask Dean Oliver, author of the book “Basketball on Paper” and now employed by the NBA’s Denver Nuggets as the team’s director of quantitative analysis. He worked the previous six years for the Seattle SuperSonics as a statistical consultant. Over the past two decades, Oliver has been a leader of evaluating and forecasting how certain players would play together and how teams will perform against each other using math and scientific equations.
It all came from his love of math and sports.
“Sports taught me a lot of math,” Oliver said. “If I were to go back to when I was in college, or even high school, I was thinking a lot about this stuff during classes. The use of statistics in class helped me figure out how to apply it in sports.”
"Basketball and math are a perfect match with a wide variety of statistics – shooting percentages, points, fouls, assists, etc. – to add, subtract, multiply and divide. And, if you want to go higher on the math scale, you can reach the levels of the Pythagorean Method to the Binomial Estimation, methods Oliver uses in his work.
“Basketball collects a lot of numbers like baseball, and we take those numbers and turn them into real stories – like how good a player is going to be, how good he’ll be with certain players around him, how to build a better team,” Oliver said. “If a team wants to change the way guys play, we can use statistics to answer some of those questions.”
The Center for the Improvement of Student Learning has previously brought you Baseball Math and Football Math, and those stories have been among our most popular. So, we decided to go to the bouncing round ball to give you ideas to incorporate basketball and math in your classrooms and at home.
We’ve provided plenty of Websites on this page that will give you some ideas, but here are a few classroom activity ideas for different grade levels to you started:
First, start with the basic statistics: points, rebounds, assists, turnovers, steals, field goal percentage and free throw percentage.
- For early grades, have students write down five players for two teams. Give them the point totals of the players in the first half and second half and have them total those points. With that information, students can calculate which team won the game and which team scored the most points in the first and second halves. For older students, make the activity a little more complicated with additional statistics and by having them calculate averages.
- Have students choose and follow the same player over a week or two. Students can keep track of scoring, rebounds and assists. Depending on grade level, students can simply total the numbers over several games through addition, or calculate averages for the three categories.
- During the NCAA basketball tournament or the NBA playoffs, students can choose one or two teams to follow and report back totals (points, rebounds, assists, etc.) or averages (margin of victory or defeat, shooting percentages, points).
- If you want a more physical activity, have the kids shoot a foam ball, crumpled up paper or even at a real basket outside. Break your students up into teams. Have one team shoot 10 shots while the other keeps track of the totals as they go along, and then rotate. It not only gets your students up and moving, but it's a great way to practice percentages and fractions.
There are countless ways to incorporate math and basketball. For those interested in a higher level of statistics, visit Dean Oliver’s Web site. Because of his current job, Oliver no longer updates the site, but all of his work is still there. He said he’s given advice to teachers in the past who have requested to use his work in their classrooms.
And now he’s living his dream of combining math and basketball into a pretty exciting job.
“I can’t exactly say that’s what I set out to do, but to be able to do sports and math, those are two things I loved growing up,” he said. “To be able to find a job that does both, hey, that’s incredible. A lot of people would love to be able to combine the things they loved as a kid.”