Wendy Knight, a senior in computational and applied mathematics at Rice University, is a shooting guard on the Rice Owls women’s basketball team. She came to Rice on a full basketball scholarship, and the number on her jersey is 10.
“That’s a nice number, mathematically speaking. Binary. But I don’t think there’s much chance it will ever be retired,” she said. When not on the court, Knight is busy trying to figure out – mathematically speaking – when NBA teams should retire jersey numbers.
“Basically,” she said, “it’s the Markov Decision Process – how to make decisions when the outcomes are random and under the control of the person making the decision at the same time.”
A San Antonio native, Knight has been playing basketball since she was a first-grader and a budding fan of the San Antonio Spurs. She played in church leagues and at Reagan High School was part of a team with a record of 122 wins and 20 losses over her four years. In her senior year the team went 28-5, and she was scouted by several university teams. Her decision to come to Rice was based, in part, on the university’s academic reputation.
“I thought about both CAAM and statistics. By the time I took CAAM 378, I had made up my mind,” she said.
CAAM 378 is Introduction to Operations Research and Optimization, taught by Andrew J. Schaefer, the Noah Harding Chair and Professor of CAAM. Through Schaefer, Knight met David Mildebrath, a second-year graduate student in CAAM. With him she began working on the problem of how best retire the numbers on basketball jerseys. She likens the research to a favorite childhood pastime, solving puzzles.
“We’re dealing with zero to 99. We want to find the optimal number of players whose numbers should be retired before the team runs out of numbers. They could use a little help with making choices that have a little structure in them,” said Knight who, with Mildebrath, expects to deliver their findings at several conferences.
As a result of this and other work, Knight was one of three CAAM majors to receive a 2017 CAAM Chevron Prizes, given for outstanding performances in class or notable research contributions.
Knight spends about 30 hours a week practicing on the basketball court, plus travel to away games. As a junior at Rice, Knight started in all 35 games for the 2017 Women’s Basketball Invitational champion Owls. She averaged 7.1 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, and for the season totaled 248 points, 140 rebounds, 63 assists and a team-leading 50 steals.
Knight is realistic about the decisions she faces regarding basketball vs. academics. She has started applying to graduate schools, and is interested in pursuing work in operations research, the application of analytical methods to improve decision making.
“I love basketball. I’ve had a lot of fun but I look on it as a means to an end. Academics are very important to me. I might end up doing something like sports analytics,” she said.