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Why not 53?

Julius van Sauers fights for a rebound against St. John's. Photo courtesy of Steven Ryan.

The first part of this article shares some interesting facts about the uniform numbers of the DI college basketball players. The second part of the article gets a little nerdy.

I looked at the 5,325 DI college basketball players and the numbers that they wear on their uniforms. Because no digit can be greater than five, there are 36 legal uniform numbers in college basketball (consider 0 and 00 as the same number). There are 351 DI basketball programs in the country, each with about 15 players per team. Bear in mind for obvious reasons that no two players on the same team can have the same number. If the numbers were randomly assigned each of the 36 legal numbers would have roughly 150 players wearing it but that is far from the case. Let’s take a look of some of the specific data.

Number 1 is the most popular number with 296 players and the second is 5 with 292 players. That’s roughly 94% of the teams in America have players with these numbers. Here is the rest of the 10 most popular numbers.

Number Frequency % of Teams
1 296 94.00%
5 292 92.70%
2 291 92.40%
0 288 91.40%
3 285 90.50%
11 271 86.00%
4 257 81.60%
10 252 80.00%
12 228 72.40%
15 224 71.10%

Let’s take a look at the other end of the spectrum. The least popular number is 53. There are only five players in the country wearing number 53 and only one gets appreciable playing time, Julius van Sauers from LIU Brooklyn.

In an exclusive interview with First and Fan, I asked Julius why number 53? He said #53 wasn’t his first choice, but rather it was the number given to him when he started playing at age 8. Julius is from the Netherlands and has played for the Dutch National team. In Europe, players can’t pick numbers like they usually do here, so his number has changed over the years, but he’s picked #53 whenever he could since.

When I inquired why so few people wear #53, he imagined because it’s more like a linebacker’s number than a basketball player’s. He correctly noted that double numbers are popular in basketball, like 11 and 55, so he wasn’t surprised that 55 (the largest legal number) wasn’t the least popular number.

I asked about the process of number selection. At LIU, they emailed the freshmen before they got to campus to ask about number preferences. He said 53 wasn’t his top pick, that he’d ranked it 2nd or 3rd, but older players had the other numbers he wanted.  So he stuck with 53 and is now the top college player in the country wearing number 53.

Here are the top 10 least popular numbers.

Number Freq. % of Teams
45 41 13.00%
41 39 12.40%
55 39 12.40%
40 37 11.70%
50 32 10.20%
52 15 4.80%
43 12 3.80%
51 12 3.80%
54 12 3.80%
53 5 1.60%

Here’s where this article turns a little nerdy. Why are the most popular numbers in the single digits and 10’s and least popular in the 40’s and 50’s?  This actually has to do with the psychology of the human condition. In mathematics, there is a phenomenon called Benford’s Law. Benford’s Law basically says if you ask people for random numbers, the responses actually follow a pattern, so they are not truly random.  A practical application is with Law Enforcement. Agencies use Benford’s Law to track serial numbers of large scale counterfeiting or fake ID rings.  Now you ask what does this have to do with college basketball jerseys. Look at the following chart.

When evaluating college basketball numbers compared to Benford’s Law, there is almost an identical match. From a mathematics perspective, the correlation is so strong that there is an implied cause and effect from Bedford’s Law. Two independent distributions have nearly a perfect correlation. Further research will need to be conducted in the field of psychology to get to the crux of why these distributions mirror each other.

A special thanks goes to Ken Pomeroy who supplied the data for this article.