All stats are updated through the games of March 1. For up-to-the-minute coverage of this week’s college basketball action, visit us on Twitter and follow @PalestraBack.
Remember when Mark Jackson said Steph Curry was ruining basketball?
Yeah, remember that nonsense? When Mark Jackson, who was fired as head coach of the Golden State Warriors for not figuring out how to coach Steph Curry, said that Steph Curry was hurting the sport of basketball by making so many 3-point shots that it would inspire youth basketball players to shoot too many 3-point shots and completely ruin the game?
That was crazy. Jackson was, of course, wrong. Curry’s style of play, and the players, teams, and coaches who have followed suit, has made an indelible effect on the sport of basketball. The game is evolving, thanks to the skills of the players who have grown up entrenched in a love for basketball, the rules that govern the sport, and the new analytical methods to perceive success.
Contrary to Jackson’s point, this is not a negative and it’s not due to just one player. The game is at a time of change, at all levels.
Zach Kram of The Ringer dove into what this has meant and could mean for the NBA this week. For a league with the best players in the world, playing a more advanced version of the game makes sense. It is crazy to think that, as Kram mentions, there was one three-pointer made by either team in the entire 1980 NBA Finals (Fun bar room trivia: Dr. J made the first long ball in Finals history that year, the only make from outside the arc in a six game series) and now individual players routinely attempt 20 deep balls in a game. In a 30 team league, everyone will evolve in the same direction. Those who fail to adapt will die.
College basketball, on the other hand, is the Wild West. With 353 Division I teams, there is so much room for diverse styles of play, especially when you factor in the vast differences in the kinds of players participating across the college basketball landscape. In the same way that it would be crazy for the Navy football team to try to succeed in the same way that the Oklahoma football team succeeds, basketball coaches have the freedom, the creativity, and the necessity to try whatever is going to give their team a chance to succeed. NBA players are too good to stop with a full-court press (just ask Rick Pitino). Zone isn’t legal in the NBA and even a well taught zone would likely get scorched by outside shooting and offensive rebounds. The 24 second clock restricts how much a team can control the pace. By college basketball standards, every NBA team either plays a pretty quick tempo or a lightning fast pace. The slowest team in the NBA (Memphis) averages 2.1 possessions per minute. The fastest team in college basketball (FIU) records just 2.0 possessions per minute.
It’s a different game, across the board, with some coaches and programs choosing to differentiate themselves even more. College basketball has high pressure trapping teams, slow snail-paced teams, teams that play all-zone, and some that mimic a lot of what we see in the NBA now.
Across the board, however, the prevalence of the 3-point shot has grown in the college game. In 2002, there were only 27 teams shooting more than 40 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc. Nebraska was the leader in that category among power conference teams, at 43.7 percent.
This season, there are 137 teams attempting at least 40 percent of their field goals from long range. Villanova leads power conference teams in the category, at 53.8 percent (more on the Wildcats in a moment…).
The analytics on why this has happened make perfect sense. College basketball teams are shooting, on average, 50.2 percent on 2-point baskets, good for 1.004 points per shot. The national average on 3-pointers is 34.4 percent, clocking in at 1.032 expected points per shot. Those differences might seem minuscule, but they have a major effect on how teams play. Remove dunks and layups from the 2-point percentages and it seems pretty easy to discern why a mid-range jump shot seems useless these days. If you’re a team, or player, that shoots well above the national averages, it would be crazy not to exploit value from 3-point land.
Take Virginia for example. The Hoos shoot the 6th best 3-point percentage in the nation, stroking 40 percent of their attempts as a team. All three of Tony Bennett’s leading scorers have taken at least 60 long balls and made more than 40 percent of them. It would be silly for him to preach anything other than spreading the floor, finding shooters, and taking those shots when available. He chooses to also do all of this at a historically slow pace, but that’s a story for another day.
Marquette sharpshooter Markus Howard is taking 8.9 two-pointers per game, making 44.4 percent, and 8.5 three-pointers per game, at 43.3 percent. If anything, he should be shooting more threes to get more bang for his buck.
The problems start to creep in when that isn’t the case. Teams who aren’t particularly good at shooting, but still caught up in this new style, are doing themselves a disservice.
Let’s jump back to Villanova. Jay Wright’s team is shooting a higher percentage of its field goals from beyond the arc than any other power conference team. Only six teams in all of college basketball record a higher percentage of their points from outside the 3-point line. Those numbers would suggest Villanova is a hot shooting team, following the trend. In fact, the Wildcats are a pedestrian shooting team. As a team, Villanova sinks 35 percent from long range, barely above the national average.
On a player-by-player basis, the math makes sense. Five of the eight players Wright plays regularly have a higher expected points per shot from outside the arc than inside. The only players in the rotation who don’t match that criteria are two notoriously weak shooters (Jahvon Quinerly and Jermaine Samuels, whose five threes versus Marquette aren’t fooling me…) and a center who hasn’t taken a three all season (Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree).
The math would seem simple. Bey, Cremo, Gillespie, Booth, and Paschall should let rip from long range and all should work out. As a team however, the math swings back the other direction. The way Samuels and Cosby-Roundtree have converted in the paint helps to swing the team’s expected point totals in favor of attacking the rim. It’s easy for a keyboard jockey like me to sit here, point at numbers, and cry foul, but implementing this is as a strategy is easier said than done. For the Wildcats purposes, this means Booth should probably be shooting more twos than threes, Quinerly shouldn’t be hoisting multiple long balls per game and making just a quarter of them, and maybe players like Samuels and Cosby-Roundtree should get a few more looks around the rim. Again, easier said than done.
Villanova’s plight, however, pales in comparison to college basketball’s prime example of this issue: the Duke Blue Devils.
OK, it’s actually Savannah State, who shoots the highest percentage of threes, but makes the 347th best percentage of them at just 29 percent. But I prefer not to even think about that, let alone explain it.
Instead, let’s discuss Duke.
Duke shoots about an average amount of its field goals from long range, despite shooting the 320th best percentage on those attempts. The Blue Devils just barely crack 30 percent as a team and when drilling down to individual players, it’s easy to see why.
I have waxed poetic about RJ Barrett’s ill-advised shooting patterns in this space before and that really just scratched the surface of the Duke problems. Barrett’s differential in expected points per shot looks normal compared to some of his teammates. Zion Williamson shoots them just to keep defenders honest, but almost two per contest is probably more than enough to do so.
Tre Jones is shooting far more threes than needed. Jack White has famously missed his last 28 (!!) long range attempts, and made just 1 of his last 34 this season. Jordan Goldwire has taken 20 threes this year. He made one.
The only two Duke players deriving more expected points per shots from outside the arc are Cam Reddish and Alex O’Connell. The latter is Coach K’s only actually good jump shooter. Reddish on the other hand has been surprisingly inaccurate from long range for a draft prospect praised for his shooting stroke. His long range expectations only exceed his work inside the arc because he’s been abysmal from 2-point land. Reddish is one of just 60 players across college basketball to have attempted at least 125 two-pointers and made 40 percent or worse on those attempts.
Two of Duke’s four losses this season have been the in the games in which the Devils attempted their most and second most 3-point attempts on the season. They also lost the game in which they attempted their fewest outside shots, so maybe this theory isn’t iron clad.
It’s not a perfect science. There’s a balance to this phenomenon that exceeds well beyond the box score. Duke is clearly more likely to win it all if White, Jones, and Goldwire start to knock down some shots. Or if Reddish and Barrett start to play more efficiently.
Entering March, these numbers aren’t the answer to everything. Bad shooting teams will make shots and hot shooting teams will go cold (See: Virginia, last year). That’s part of the beauty of a single elimination tournament. We can’t guarantee what will happen, yet when looking for how an upset could or did happen, a team’s misguided adventures from beyond the arc should be a prime suspect.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.