Beyond the arc

Taking the temperature of college basketball, two decades into the three-point shot

They don’t give you much time, or room, for the three-point shot in college basketball these days. Everybody knows how fast a team can string together a few threes and change the game. Today, scouting reports are so detailed and accurate that opponents know not only who can shoot the three-point shot, but when, where, why and how often any single player is likely to pull the trigger on a triple.

And then Robert Vaden hits one. Shot it so fast that even if you were expecting it — like everyone in Freedom Hall was, because Vaden is one of the nation’s premier three-point shooters — it still catches you off guard. The University of Alabama-Birmingham senior ranks in the Top 10 of all college players in number of attempts and number of hits, and once dropped 33 points full of threes on — wait a minute, he just hit another one.

It happens fast.

At the other end of the court, University of Louisville star Terrence Williams is open in the corner and he lets fly a three. Only this one clonks off the front of the rim, caroms straight up in the air, bounces twice on top of the backboard and drops lamely over the backside. About as ugly a shot as you’ll see in major college basketball.

A few minutes later Louisville guard Preston Knowles finds teammate Jerry Smith open in the corner, and Smith swishes a three. Seconds after that Williams sky-hooks a sharp pass across court to Knowles, and he drills a three-pointer.

All of which shows you that guys who can shoot the three should, and those who can’t … should rebound.


Except as soon as one falls comfortably into that smug conclusion, the mercurial Williams hits three-straight threes, on his way to an electric 5-for-8 afternoon from behind the three-point line that keys a 21-point-10-rebound-7-assist performance that lifts Louisville to a flashy 82-62 victory.

Goes to show you never can tell.

To wit: Who would’ve predicted that ever-enigmatic Edgar Sosa would pick Jan. 4 as the day he would awaken from a deep trance to coldly crush Kentucky with a deep three at the buzzer?

But this story isn’t about being right about who should shoot and who shouldn’t. And it’s not really about what the University of Louisville Cardinals can do to their opponents, or what opponents can do to them. It’s about that tricky, lightning-strike, three-point shot that has changed college basketball — maybe even saved it — in the roughly two decades since its introduction to the game in 1986.

“The three-point shot has changed the game,” says ESPN analyst Len Elmore. “It’s the great equalizer.”

Which is what college basketball desperately needed. Two decades ago the top teams were loaded with size and strength, and simply squashed those who weren’t.

“When it began,” says Elmore, “a lot of folks thought it would put more points on the board and be more exciting for fans. Speed up the game. Which it certainly has done. But in the end I’m not sure it was envisioned that there would be teams that would rely on the three-point shot instead of higher percentage shots.”

It didn’t take long to see all the three could be.

A young coach at Providence College named Rick Pitino figured out that if you had several guys who could hit three-point shots, a smaller team could sharpshoot its way to victories over taller, stronger teams. In the first season of the three, Providence led the nation in threes shot and made, and when the Friars shot their way to the 1987 Final Four, the three thing had arrived.

It hasn’t gone away. Just last season, Davidson, a little Presbyterian school in North Carolina that hadn’t been heard from since Lefty Driesell was the coach there just after the Civil War, became the sudden Cinderella of the NCAA tournament, a reality spurred by the three-point shooting and all-around play of guard Stephen Curry. The sharpshooter began by burying eight of 10 threes and scoring 40 points in an upset of Gonzaga. Davidson then trailed No. 1 seed Georgetown by 17, but found the range and won. Before eventual champion Kansas finally stopped them, Davidson also sent Wisconsin back to the dairy.

And then

The 2008-09 season began with Virginia Military Institute shooting Kentucky to death 111-103 in Rupp Arena. It was the military school’s first victory over a big-time opponent since Duggar Baucom took over as coach at VMI in 2004 and turned the Keydets into the highest scoring team in the NCAA’s Division I. VMI hit 14 threes in the victory at Kentucky — right at its average of 13.6 per game.

“We’d only won six games my first year, and when practice opened the next season we lost our starting center and point guard,” Baucom says. “I decided with the talent we had, we could play it straight up and lose by a lot, or slow it down to a crawl and lose by less.”

Or do something really different.

Baucom says he was intrigued by the way Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead had sped up the game. Another California coach, Vance Walberg of Fresno City College, was utilizing the three to great success. And Grinnell College, in Iowa, was smoking all previous college scoring records with a frenetic pressing defense and an all-out three-point barrage.

“Early in practice we tried a scrimmage and both sides scored over 100 points,” recalls Baucom. “I asked my best scorer, Reggie Williams, ‘Reggie, how would you like to lead the nation in scoring?’ He looked at me like I was crazy, but you could see he liked the idea.”

And it worked. Williams led the country in scoring and VMI, which had recorded just three winning seasons in 35 years, was suddenly a red-hot player in the Big South Conference. The Keydets, now led by twin brothers Chavis and Travis Holmes, are 11-2 after spraying 111 on Big Blue.

Of course, VMI is still a snail compared to Grinnell, which is averaging nearly 24 threes per game. That’s not attempts. That’s 23.9 made three pointers per game.

Somewhere back in regular life, Bellarmine University has found the very best of the three-point world in Division II. The Knights don’t shoot so many, but make plenty — connecting at a sizzling 49.5 percent. Bellarmine is 12-0, after victories over Div. II powerhouses West Liberty State (Pa.) and Northern Kentucky, and ranked 13th in the latest coaches’ poll. It’s the best start in school history.

Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport says the key to the three is being in the right place at the right time.

“It comes down to shot selection, and good shots come off good spacing,” says Davenport.

Spacing is the way a team arrays its manpower on the court — stretching the defense, making it harder to cover the shooters.

“Today’s players are quicker and bigger, and so athletic they can outrun their mistakes. So they can cover more ground,” continues Davenport, a former U of L assistant under Denny Crum and Rick Pitino. “I think it comes down to discipline. Pat Riley took hundreds of NBA games — and this comes to me via Coach Pitino — and he studied challenged shots. Not a dunk. Not a put back. Jump shots out on the floor. He found NBA players only made between 18 and 21 percent of challenged shots. Now, if they’re the best players in the world and they’re making all that money, and that’s the best they can shoot against a challenged shot, then what’s the high school player, or the Bellarmine or Louisville or Kentucky player, going to make? So you must have great spacing to get good shots.”

And don’t forget the shot selection. Retired Louisville coach Crum hearkens back to when he was an assistant to legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.

“Coach Wooden and I talked about all things being equal, what single factor would determine winning or losing,” says Crum. “He thought it was rebounding, and I told him I didn’t know, I wasn’t sure what it would be. So he did a statistical analysis of his teams going back 20 years, and he found it was shooting percentage.”

Perhaps it will surprise you to know that percentages are certainly not up today. At one time, the top teams always shot over 50 percent. Now, perhaps because of the three-point shot, 50 percent is a special night.

“It’s not a matter of them not being able to shoot,” says Crum. “I just think the way offenses are run today they shoot too many different shots. And they’re not going to be as good at it shooting from six, seven, eight places as if they were shooting from one or two places. But nobody runs those kinds of offenses anymore. Everybody runs a motion or passing game, so they’ve got guys shooting from all over the floor.”

And not always so successfully.

Maybe shooting and finesse are overrated. Maybe at the top, college basketball is still a power game. Look at Big East juggernaut Pittsburgh, undefeated and this week ranked No. 1. This team hands out bruises.

A couple years ago Pitt had two big, big men, Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall, each of whom would take a side of the lane on defense. They’d kind of inch apart and tantalizingly open up the middle. Pretty soon some oh-so-foolish guard would take the bait and try driving to the basket. Gray and Kendall wouldn’t sandwich the guy — it was more like pro wrestling. One would just slightly nudge the guard off course right into the other big guy, who would lower the boom. Ka-BOOM! Seemed like Big East refs laughed harder every time they saw it.

So maybe the game is still dominated by size and strength.

“It think it’s just the opposite,” counters Pitino, headmaster at Louisville. “Teams are being dominated by shooting. Look at Duke. They’re one of the better teams around, and so is North Carolina, because of speed and shooting.

“Now, in the Big East, I would agree with you. But elsewhere, shooting is a major factor. I think teams like Butler, which is playing good basketball, [and] Gonzaga, they shoot the ball great. I think with the number of shots taken, and the shooting percentages, shooting is the No. 1 factor.

“Look,” says Pitino. “Everybody’s defense is to take away the ‘paint.’ So what happens is you work inside-to-out, and you have to rely on the jump shot — and the good teams can knock it down.”

Butler coach Brad Stevens is happy for the nod from Pitino, and reinforces the Louisville coach’s point.

“The longer people are, the more contested shots you get close to the basket. That’s a fact. So you have to be able to spread the floor.

“I don’t think it’s just us,” says Stevens. “Florida wins two national championships [2006-07] and had those guys inside, [Al] Horford and [Joakim] Noah. But I tell you the guys who really killed people were their guards. They could really make shots. That’s Torian Green and Lee Humphrey. I think that kind of got lost in the shuffle. Then when they get to the Final Four, those are the guys shooting in and really separating the game.”

Meanwhile, Pitino’s reference to shots taken and shooting percentages is interesting. A chart of those numbers over 21 years shows that while the average number of three-point shots attempted has doubled in two decades to about 19 per game, the average of three-point success is almost a straight line. Over the years, college players have consistently hit about 35 percent of their three-point tries.

Year after year, 35 percent.

Which seems low, but maybe shooting is harder than anyone realizes.

It has taken four years of recruiting for Davenport to assemble a cast at Bellarmine that can shoot 50 percent from beyond the arc. Freshman Braydon Hobbs and sophomore Justin Benedetti are his aces.

But that skill level, Davenport says, comes from hours of dedicated practice, which breeds confidence. “I don’t cross my fingers,” Davenport says. “If it’s a good shot, I think they’re going to make it.”

Butler coach Stevens agrees.

“I’m sure there are some natural gifts involved, but the bottom line is these kids who are making these shots at this level put in an incredible amount of work,” he says. “These are the best shooters we’ve ever coached, and we’ve had some really good ones here at Butler. You can’t keep them out of the gym. You literally have to lock the door. They’ll come in at night. They’ll come in early in the morning, they’ll come in at lunch, they’ll always try to get in the gym.”

But what works for Bellarmine in D-II, and Butler in D-I, and has helped teams like VMI pull the occasional upset, isn’t necessarily a big part of the Big Picture.

A quick look at the Associated Press Top 25 at the end of December showed just two ranked D-I teams that also showed in the Top 25 of three-point shots made — No. 13 Notre Dame and No. 21 Butler. Unranked Eastern Kentucky, incidentally, is sixth-best in threes.

Elmore says the three remains just a facet of the game.

“Teams construct themselves very differently,” Elmore explains. “A great example is the teams that don’t shoot the three unless the opportunity presents itself. You go inside and utilize your size advantage. Then you have other teams, like the Dukes, they run a fast break and instead of running guys to the basket, they’ll run guys to the corners to look for that shot.”

Which doesn’t work for everybody.

“One of the things that surprises me is when you get the big guys near the basket where they can take a high percentage shot, and instead of taking that shot they kick it back out to a three-point shooter — giving up a higher percentage shot to hit the homerun ball,” he continues. “I think it confuses young people — and this really begins at the elementary and junior high level. Unfortunately it’s infected the college game.”

All in all, Elmore says, “I’m not sure the teaching of the science of the game has caught up.”

Or maybe it’s not about science at all. Maybe some players are simply better shooters — as it has always been. Ask Elmore who the great shooters are in today’s college game and a smile broadens across his face.

“Oh, there’s just so many guys who can shoot the ball,” he says. “Obviously, Stephen Curry is the first guy who comes to mind. You’ve got some shooters out there, but he may stand out above the rest. Not just to shoot it the way he shoots it, but to create his shot off the dribble. You talk about ‘inside-out’ being the easy way, but many times he has to create his own shot, and he’s still able to get it.”

Curry led the nation in scoring last year at 30 points a game, and is on top again this season — right at 30.

Beyond all the dunks and rebounds and rejections, shooting has always been the magic of basketball.

Let’s look back.

Kentucky All-American Louie Dampier didn’t have the three-point rule in college, but played all seven years the old American Basketball Association existed, when the league pioneered the three-pointer. The ABA’s all-time leading scorer, Dampier at one point canned 500 threes in a three-year stretch.

Filed under “Great Shot” in this writer’s memory is one Rick Mount hit in the semi-finals of the 1969 NCAA tourney in Louisville. Purdue had the ball and everyone in Freedom Hall knew Mount would take the final shot. He got it about 25 feet from the basket, high on the left wing. Two North Carolina players were right there. As the clock ticked down Mount backpedaled and shot a fall-away — I bet it was 35 feet, and he fell into the scorers’ table after the release — that swished at the buzzer. Purdue would end up losing the championship to UCLA that year, but a big reason the Boilermakers got to the final game was Mount’s jumper.

Old, old-timers recall the 1949 shot Kentucky’s Ralph Beard hit to beat Villanova 57-56 in overtime in the old Alumni Gym in Lexington. UK fan Rodney Beck was there, and says when Beard hit the shot at the horn, Kentucky Gov. Happy Chandler ran on the floor and put his finger down on the spot where Beard had shot — not moving it until somebody came out with a hammer and put a nail right there in the floor. It’s still there.

That was more than a half century ago, but the three-point reward only makes the outside jump shot more arithmetically valuable today. Three instead of two — if you can stroke it.

Yet the game is resistant to change. Pitino’s coaching landmarks offer the proof.

Pitino killed Louisville with the three when he brought Kentucky into Freedom Hall in 1992. But it wasn’t until he had a better inside cast to go with his three-point shooters that Kentucky won a National Championship in 1996.

The coach’s 2005 Final Four team at Louisville featured outside shooters Francisco Garcia, Taquan Dean and Larry O’Bannon. But when West Virginia shot 66 percent from the three-point line in the West Regional Final at Albuquerque, Louisville employed a better all-around game to win in overtime and advance to the Final Four.

And that balance continues.

“The three is the equalizer,” says Elmore. “But I think Rick Pitino, now that’s he’s got bigger guys — I don’t know for certain because I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I’m pretty sure Louisville is taking less three-pointers because they have a guy that’s as formidable as Samardo Samuels in the middle.”

VMI’s Baucom understands that big powers search first for big men.

“But you look at Memphis last year,” Baucom says. “If they’d had just one guy who could shoot from the outside, they probably would have won the tournament. And think what a team like North Carolina, with all the athletes and shooters they have, could do if they played like us. There’s no telling how many points they could score.”

Butler’s Stevens hasn’t forgotten about recruiting shooters. He’s seen “Hoosiers.”

“I think in Indiana,” says Stevens. “You have people who have created a history and a tradition of excellence in shooting the basketball. Obviously names like Rick Mount, you mentioned, come to mind, and there are plenty of others. We’ve had a couple of those through our program, where if they were open and the shot went up, you had a pretty good feeling the shot was going in.”

Sounds pretty, but the old ways endure.

After two decades — and a lot of trouble getting the spacing right, selecting good shots, knocking down the outside shot because they’re taking away the paint, and all that other stuff — college basketball remains stuck at 35 percent from the three-point line and the bruisers of Pittsburgh are No. 1.

However beautiful shooting may be, the belief system of basketball remains unchanged: Three-point teams may have their day, but they can’t go all the way.

Maybe, it says here, college basketball hasn’t seen all the three can be. Someday a team will come along with enough of the traditional ingredients and the All-American shooter who can make the triple pay — consistently.

You won’t have to cross your fingers. When he shoots, you’ll have a pretty good feeling it’s going in. 

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