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In March of each year, Ken Pomeroy works on developing forecasts. With a master’s degree in atmospheric science from the University of Wyoming College of Engineering and Applied Science, he’s used his education wisely over the years.
Now he’s done forecasting big storms, and is busy forecasting the result of the Big Dance.
Pomeroy, a 1999 UW graduate, is hailed by many to be the foremost statistical analyst for NCAA men’s basketball. He developed the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings (www.KenPom.com), an algorithm to predict success of teams using multiple sets of data for each squad in the nation. His work has been referenced in the New York Times, ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated. Coaches and media alike use the metrics to form educated opinions on which teams will advance in conference and national tournaments, most notably the NCAA Championship.
Not bad for someone who worked as a road designer before earning his graduate degree at UW.
“My rankings are designed to establish how good every men’s college basketball team is in the country right now,” Pomeroy says. “My original purpose was to make forecasts about it, because it’s not an easy sport to predict. Not all the teams are evenly matched. It’s like making weather forecasts, which is challenging.
“It’s always been my favorite sport and one of the few sports I had any skill at growing up. There are 351 teams in the nation, so it’s impossible to be knowledgeable about all of them. Part of my motivation was trying to find a way to understand how good all these teams were.”
After earning a degree in civil engineering in 1995 from Virginia Tech, he designed roadways in Maryland, but wanted to pursue an interest in meteorology. He knew he was changing careers, so he thought he would go someplace he’d never been before. He saved up for a few years, applied to UW’s atmospheric science program in 1997 and came to Laramie. His adviser was Tom Parish, atmospheric science department head and professor.
“My thesis work involved research with Dr. Parish, looking at winds off the California coast,” Pomeroy says. “Overall, the experience was great, and I came into it without any formal training. I was an open book, and Laramie is a unique place from a meteorology perspective. There were a lot of interesting things to learn outside the classroom living there.”
After graduating from UW, he got a job with the National Weather Service as a forecaster. He worked in Great Falls, Mont., Cheyenne and Salt Lake City. During that span, though, he kept developing his ranking system. He began to work on it while at UW in 1999, and the modern version came into existence in 2004.
“Ultimately, it comes down to looking at what has worked in the past and knowing which variables work to predict the future,” Pomeroy says. “Through that process, the formula has changed a little bit here and there. The real change for me was doing something that went beyond a simple rating system. I looked at a team’s offense and defense to really dig into the details. That’s what allowed me to stand out and allowed my work to take off.”
Pomeroy’s efforts were rewarded around 2008, when national media began referencing his rankings. Writers and analysts from ESPN came calling, and that’s when he knew KenPom.com could be a widely used tool. Nowadays, it’s what he does for a living, updating the subscription-based site from home in Salt Lake City. He gave up teaching atmospheric science at the University of Utah years ago, but does serve as a statistical-analysis consultant for teams from time to time.
“It serves as a full-time job,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate that I was able to turn my website into a revenue producer.”
Parish was Pomeroy’s adviser and instructor at UW from 1997-99 and saw his potential early on.
“As a student, Ken had the ability to work independently and think about solutions to problems,” Parish says. “I don’t remember ever having to guide him. We would talk about some ideas, and he would follow his instincts and interests. His critical thinking skills were excellent.
“His story holds a message for all engineers and scientists. Along the way, we all have acquired a useful set of skills that make us competitive regardless of what final field we choose. He’s smart, driven and educated, and all engineers can be impressed with what he has done. Regarding his basketball work, he saw an opportunity, had an interest and, most importantly, had the necessary skills to enable him to solve problems and make a difference.”
On the basketball front, Pomeroy has analyzed the data and predicts Michigan State to win the championship April 4 in Houston, citing the balance of the Spartans and Head Coach Tom Izzo’s experience. It’s probably a smart move to trust him. In a 2013 story, C.J. Moore of bleacherreport.com wrote: “The national title winner will likely be a team that fared well all season in the areas Pomeroy measures.” At the time of publishing, Moore wrote “eight of the last nine champions have finished ranked in the top two of his ratings.”
Pomeroy calls his UW education “a turning point” in his life, and believes he wouldn’t be in the position he is today without it.
“My degree in meteorology was great, and the graduate school at UW prepared me well for that,” he says. “The professors were outstanding. I came into it not knowing much about the science, and they gave me a chance, with an unorthodox background, to get a degree and a job. If I didn’t end up in basketball, I’d still be doing meteorology, and I love that field. I really enjoyed my time at UW and all the things that Laramie has to offer.”