If you settle in on ESPN Classic and watch a college basketball game before 1987, it looks so different.
You see mid-range jumpers, a lost art today. When a team is on offense, most of the time all five players are in motion and never are there two or even three of them simply standing around 20 feet away from the basket waiting for a kick out. And never was a game delayed for the officials to see where a shooter’s toes were before he launched a shot beyond the arc.
There was no arc.
All that changed 25 seasons ago, when the NCAA put the 3-point shot into college basketball. It changed the game like nothing else, from opening up offenses to seeing long-range buzzer beaters to forcing coaches to take an entirely new approach to what they did.
In that first season of the 3 — 1986-87 — upstart Providence made a Final Four run. A team coached by Rick Pitino relied on a sharp-shooting guard named Billy Donovan who was not afraid nor discouraged to fire away at will.
“I don’t think a lot of people really understood how to deal with the 3-point line,” Donovan said. “A lot of people were still upset that the 3-point line had come into college basketball.”
Not Donovan, who garnered the nickname Billy the Kid.
“No, I was happy,” he said with a smile. “It saved my life.
“I played for coach Pitino, whose NBA background was further advanced than most coaches because he had coached defending the 3-point line. What he was able to teach us was that we were going to take more 3-pointers than anybody in the country, because back then everything was protect the paint. No easy baskets and you know what, we’ll give up 3-point shots. Teams were giving up 3s back then.
“To tell you how crazy it was, my first year with the 3, our first six Big East opponents, not one of them made a 3-point shot. That would never happen in today’s game. That was 25 years ago, but that would never happen now. And a lot of teams were not taking a whole lot of them, maybe six or seven. We were taking 35 a game.”
“That was a huge discrepancy. You don’t have that kind of discrepancy any more.”
The 5-foot-11 Donovan led Providence that season with 20.6 points per game and 7.2 assists, hitting 97 of 237 (40.9 percent) on 3-pointers.
Accordingly, he’s taken 3-point aggressiveness with him as a coach, especially noticeable when Florida won the 2006 and ’07 NCAA titles. In 2006, Florida shot 39.2 percent beyond the arc and in 2007, the Gators drained 40.9 percent of their 3-pointers.
Two years ago, you could certainly argue that a talent-laden Kentucky team would have won it all had it shot better from beyond the arc.
“When it started, there were only a few teams that changed how they played,” said UK coach John Calipari, who was an assistant at Pitt in 1986-87. “And it was almost an afterthought.
“Now it’s become a weapon and I learned the hard way [in 2010] when we had a team that could have won a national title and we went 0 for 20 from the 3-point line.”
That was part of a 4-for-32 3-point performance in a season-ending NCAA-tournament loss to West Virginia.
Shooting woes aside, Calipari, of course, understands the value of the 3-point shot.
“One advantage I had from being in the NBA was that college basketball was always about motion and movement and the NBA is solely about spacing,” Calipari said. “You learn that and now when you watch my teams play we don’t play on the wings, we play in the deep corners. You want to get to the wing, we’ll get you to the wing, but we’re not starting there because we want the court space.
“So the more spacing you have the more you try to get penetration and more post-ups and the more opportunities you’re going to have for 3s.”
The change in strategy affected the officials, too.
Gerald Boudreaux, now the Southeastern Conference coordinator of men’s basketball officials, was an SEC ref in 1986-87.
“It definitely opened it up,” Boudreaux recalled. “At that time, we had a lot of big guys in the SEC and post play was pretty serious. But you had guys shooting from the outside and it kind of expanded the field, if you will.”
Accordingly, it made it tougher to officiate.
“It really did. It took a lot of emphasis from the post area to sideline-to-sideline. There was still a lot of post play and somebody jacks one up from three and you’re trying to figure out, ‘Golly, where was he?’ Of course, there wasn’t a lot of teaching and instruction at that time as to what keys to pick up on, so it was a lot of trial and error. The positioning and mechanics were not designed for the 3-point shot, so all of that was altered and adjusted as a result.”
|Nov. 22, 1986||Mike Tyson wins his first world boxing title by defeating Trevor Berbick in Las Vegas.|
|Dec. 26, 1986||After 35 years on the airwaves and holding the title of longest-running non-news program on network television, NBC airs the final episode of daytime drama Search for Tomorrow.|
|Jan. 3, 1987||Aretha Franklin becomes the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.|
|Jan. 13, 1987||New York mafiosi Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno and Carmine Peruccia are sentenced to 100 years in prison for racketeering.|
|Jan. 31, 1987||The last Ohrbach’s department store closes in New York after 64 years of operation.|
|Feb. 20, 1987||A second Unabomber bomb explodes at a Salt Lake City computer store, injuring the owner.|
|March 9, 1987||The Irish rock band U2 releases their studio album The Joshua Tree.|
|March 24, 1987||Michael Eisner, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and French Prime Minister and future President of France Jacques Chirac sign the agreement to construct the 4,800 acres Euro Disney Resort (now called Disneyland Paris) and to develop the Val d’Europe area of the new town Marne-la-Vallée in Paris, France.|
|• Source: Wikipedia|
Officials aside, it accomplished what C.M. Newton thought it would.
“What had happened in college basketball is we had gotten to where everything was a post-up game,” Newton said. “And that’s why I favored the trapezoidal lane, to force the big guy to learn how to play basketball. Our coaches were all doing the same thing. They were putting a big guy on the box and keeping him there and it became a wrestling match. As a consequence you had more sloughing, sagging-type defenses. The 3-point shot opened that up.”
Newton, who is now running the NIT, was the basketball coach at Vanderbilt and later head of USA Basketball. In 1986, he was also chairman of the NCAA basketball rules committee.
“It’s interesting and the reason I laugh, the basketball coaches, when they were polled, there was only about 20 percent in favor of changing the rule,” Newton said. “Basketball coaches are basically very traditional when it comes to rules.”
Never was that more apparent than the day before the 1987 national championship game when then-Indiana coach Bob Knight scoffed at the 3-point shot and derisively referred to the late Ed Steitz, secretary of the rules committee, as “the father of the 19-foot, 9-inch rule.”
He wasn’t complaining, however, the next night after Steve Alford hit seven 3-pointers to lead the Hoosiers’ 74-73 victory against Syracuse.
Said Knight, “and we make three more points from the 3-point shot than Syracuse does, and that’s the difference in the game. So, uh, thanks, Ed.”
Newton’s Vanderbilt team capitalized on the new rule right away. Behind shooters like Barry Booker, Barry Goheen, Derek Wilcox and Scott Draud, the relatively diminutive Commodores hit 43.6 percent beyond the arc.
“I was a little bit ahead of the curve because I had experienced it and knew it was coming in and I knew the impact it was going to have on the game,” Newton said. “We recruited shooters and shot more 3s than anybody.”
That mid-range jumper?
“We did away with it totally,” Newton admitted. “We told them there will be no 12- to 15-foot jump shots. We’re either going to shoot it from 3-point range or in closer … We absolutely just took that out of our offense.”
The women got the 3-point shot the next year. Georgia led the SEC that season, but 33rd-year Georgia coach Andy Landers doesn’t take much credit for it.
“I had no idea it was going to affect the game the way it has,” he admitted. “Didn’t like it, didn’t want to mess with the rules, I’m kind of old school when it comes to rules as it relates to basketball. We’ve got a great game, why you messing with it? So I was opposed to it. But I was wrong. It was an energizer for teams, for the fans.”
The arc was moved back to 20 feet, 9 inches for the men in 2008. The women’s line was moved back an entire foot this season to 20-9.
Landers was asked about coaching the 3-point shot.
“You don’t. You recruit it. That’s one of things either you can or can’t,” Landers said.
“I’ve affected a lot of kids’ shots in 33 years of coaching, but I’m not sure I’ve ever changed anybody’s. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a kid who wasn’t a good shooter and made her a good shooter. No, you recruit 3-point shooters. If you don’t, you don’t have any. Well, let me rephrase that, you recruit 3-point hitters. If you don’t, you’re going to end up with 3-point shooters and not hitters.”
Donovan, whose Florida teams perennially are near the top of the SEC in most offensive categories, didn’t disagree.
“I think you have be a good shooter,” Donovan said. “If a guy can’t shoot the ball it’s hard to make him a great shooter. But I also think from a coaching perspective getting him to understand when to shoot and when not to shoot it and try to get them confidence.”
Some players should shoot it early in a possession, but others should make the extra pass and get in the flow of the offense, Donovan said.
“I talk to them a lot about the balance of inside-out.”
He said his 3-point shooters have freedom “but have to understand what’s going on.”
Twenty-five years later, Donovan is now almost the grandfather of the 3-point shot.
“I probably have a better appreciation now than I did back then when it was going on,” he said. “It was the first time and when I was in college I was thinking they were going to do away with the 3-point line because everybody’s mad about it, not knowing how the rules committee worked.
“I was thinking they were going to pick the line up after that year,” he added with a laugh.
“Thank God it was my senior year.”
Even Billy the Kid didn’t understand how long the 3-point would last and just how big it would become.