Breaking down the 3-point shooting, scoring boom in college basketball
It was a dunk that rocked Twitter as much as it rocked the Pauley Pavilion rims.
Oregon was dominating UCLA in the first half of a Feb. 9 showdown when Dillon Brooks, a 6-foot-7 bulldozer of a forward, threw down one of the most ferocious dunks of the season. No need to be subtle: Ike Anigbogu got posterized.
Look a little closer, though – squint if you must – and you’ll notice this play wouldn’t have happened without Chris Boucher, a shot-swatting, 3-point shooting center, chilling in the corner. Boucher is shooting 35 percent from distance, so Anigbogu was forced to choose between two undesirable options: leave Boucher wide open for a corner 3, or let Brooks coast to the goal unattended.
Anigbogu got caught in between. He takes two small steps toward Boucher, but by then, the Brooks Train is at full speed. Anigbogu tries to wall off the rim too late. Twitter rocked. Rims shaking.
In one play, Oregon demonstrated where college basketball is headed. Shooting at every position. Wings masquerading as big men. A faster pace. Eighty-two teams boast an adjusted offensive rating -- that is, points scored every 100 possessions -- of 110 or higher this season, a far cry from the early and mid-2000s, when less than half as many teams scored at such a hefty clip.
Take Florida State. The Seminoles are playing faster than ever under Leonard Hamilton; they’re also scoring more efficiently than ever. The Seminoles rank 38th in the country in adjusted tempo; basically, the pace of play. FSU had routinely landed in the 100s in prior seasons, sinking all the way to 202nd in 2009-10. Its offense ranks 20th this year.
“I think Coach switched up his style because of the athletes we have,” Florida State's leading scorer, Dwayne Bacon, tells NCAA.com. “We’ve got some guys that can get out and run and score super, super well. And I think the more we get out in transition, the better we play.”
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“He [Isaac] definitely makes my life easier,” Bacon admits. “We have two mismatches on the floor all game long.”
Bacon deserves credit, but Isaac is the key that unlocks Florida State’s small-ball treasure chest. The Seminoles can play small (more shooting, more ball-handling, faster) without sacrificing anything on defense; Isaac is able to guard burly forwards and switch onto guards. "Small ball" may be the catchphrase, but if you’re small just for the sake of being small, you’ll get decimated. Downsize while holding your own on the glass, though, and you could have something special.
Bluebloods typically have the luxury to recruit size and shooters, but one marquee team that has embraced the small-ball movement as much as anyone is Duke. The Blue Devils stumbled upon an undersized lineup in 2001 when Carlos Boozer was injured and small forward Shane Battier was forced to play power forward. Duke won all six of its games without Boozer, who rejoined the team for the Sweet 16.
“Coach K makes an effort to recruit that kind of guy who can play both forward spots, because it makes us so much more versatile,” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer says. “Whether it’s Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy, Luol Deng, Kyle Singler, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram, you need that kind of player in order to play multiple styles well.”
Purdue’s Vince Edwards is one of the best hybrid forwards in the country. Edwards arrived in West Lafayette as a 6-foot-8, jack-of-all-trades small forward pegged as an ideal fit in the Boilermakers’ grit-and-grind, slow-it-down system.
Life has changed for Edwards, but he’s adapted admirably. Purdue has two elite big men in Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, but when they share the floor, each becomes worse. Haas eats into Swanigan’s interior territory and vice versa. Coach Matt Painter rarely uses them together for extended stretches.
But Painter wouldn’t be able to optimize his low-post brutes at all without Edwards, who has made a full-time transition to power forward as a junior. Edwards is canning a tidy 44.1 percent of his 3s this season while jostling with fours on the other end. It’s not what the junior envisioned when he committed to Purdue, but Edwards is thriving.
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Purdue has the reputation of a deliberate, conservative offensive program that plays through its big men, but things are much different this season. The Boilermakers rank 18th in the country in offensive efficiency and are hitting 41.3 percent of their 3s, putting them in the top 5 in the nation.
“Our coaches are even encouraging us to take 3s in transition this year," Edwards says.
Swanigan is garnering Naismith Award consideration. Part of the reason he’s been so dominant is Purdue’s newfound commitment to a four-out, one-in style.
On Feb. 9 against Indiana, Purdue was leading by two with about a minute to play when Painter drew up an after-timeout beauty. Watch as three Boilermaker guards create misdirection with a simple dribble-weave action, and Swanigan slips the ball-screen and converts an easy and-one:
The guy who makes this play work is the 44 percent 3-point shooter who’s standing in the corner -- Edwards -- barely moving. Indiana defender Juwan Morgan is worried about ball-handler Dakota Mathias firing a skip pass to Edwards; with a non-shooter in that spot, Morgan could plant a foot in the paint and muck up Swanigans’s roll to the basket.
Instead, Morgan arrives a half-second too late. No college player in America can stop Swanigan in that position.
When teams have four or five shooters on the floor, they jack more 3s. Significantly more. Division I squads are on pace to shatter the record for 3-point attempts this season.
On the surface, the strategy is pretty simple: shooting 33.3 percent from 3 is the same as shooting 50 percent from 2, so why not fire as many of those suckers as possible?
But there’s more to the strategy than simple math.
“We’ve found out that having that having this style of play has not only helped us generate fan support and win games, but it helps us attract the next group of players,” Central Michigan head coach Keno Davis says. “And we’ve found that we have more success in a 90-point game than a 50-point game in both areas.”
The Chippewas are an extreme run-and-gun case study; Only four teams play at a faster pace than CMU, and almost 53 percent of the team's shots come from behind the arc, second in the nation. The Chippewas average 35.3 3-point attempts a game and routinely eclipse 40 deep balls a night.
With 3-point tries on the rise, it’s worth asking: At what point is this trend bad for the game? What if schools like Central Michigan start attempting 50 3s a game?
“I think we’re about as extreme as you’d want to be,” Davis says. “Part of the reason we take so many 3s is to open up the paint and get to to the free-throw line. If you’re making them at less than about 33 percent, you’re hurting your chances to win.”
It's about time, it seems, to start reconsidering what constitutes a bad shot. UCLA, on track to have the highest adjusted offensive rating since the turn of the millennium, takes a lot of shots that would make a basketball purist hyperventilate.
Consider this late-game situation: 35 seconds left, a two-point lead. Conventional wisdom suggests a high-percentage shot, maybe a trip into the lane to try to draw a foul. Or maybe a pick-and-roll for your best player to get him the ball and let him create.
Lonzo Ball has other ideas:
Objectively, that’s a terrible look. A contested, 30-foot stepback 3 is the last thing most coaches would want there. But Ball takes and makes that shot regularly, and even when he misses, the mere attempt can help the Bruins in the long run. When defenders have to guard the Bruins 5 feet behind the 3-point arc, driving lanes open up. The Bruins shoot 60.2 percent on 2-pointers, second in the country.
Several teams around the country are stacked with great shooters. What makes UCLA historically great is its combination of snipers and ball-handlers that can create for others.
“There are times where we have Lonzo, Bryce [Alford], and Aaron [Holiday] on the floor at the same time and there'd be an argument you've got three point guards,” head coach Steve Alford says. “You've got three guys that can play multiple positions, just because of their basketball IQ, their skillset of how they pass it, shoot it, handle it. Any time you can put that kind of skill level out on the court, you become a real problem.”
In many cases, a shooter is only as good as his creator. Alford played point guard last season but, thanks to Ball’s arrival, he’s running off of more screens and dribbling less. The results have been dazzling. Alford had never topped 40 percent shooting from anywhere on the floor in his first three seasons. He’s hitting a sizzling 46.1 percent of his 3s as a senior.
“You add someone like Lonzo and it just takes a ton of pressure off you and puts you in spots where you can succeed at a much higher rate,” Bryce says. “I haven't had to take nearly as many tough shots at the end of shot clocks and stuff like that. He's been able to take a huge amount of pressure off me and let me do what I do best -- run off screens and get off the ball. It's been great for me.”
UCLA is playing at its quickest pace of the Alford era -- the Bruins rank 13th in adjusted tempo -- but they pale in comparison to a team like BYU. An average Cougar possession takes 14 seconds. When KenPom started tracking that statistic in 2009-10, just one team played faster.
BYU head coach Dave Rose is with Davis; the Cougars have a 19,000-seat arena to fill, and playing an entertaining brand of basketball is a priority.
But Rose -- a co-captain on the Phi Slamma Jamma teams of the 1980s -- also has adopted a coaching philosophy from his playing days. Those Houston teams were ahead of their time, playing a run-and-gun style before the term was invented.
“We were ranked No. 1 for a lot of my senior year and we were playing that up-tempo style before a lot of teams were. A lot of teams would try to hold the ball on us,” Rose recalls. “But I think that’s where my confidence in running a successful program with a wide-open style initiated. You just learn a lot about who you are and what you want to do in that setting.”
Some changes in modern basketball can be attributed to natural evolution of the game. Others are, in part, by design. Prior to the 2013-14 season, a hand-checking rule was implemented in an effort to lessen the amount of physical defense on the perimeter. Two years later, college basketball trimmed the shot clock from 35 to 30 seconds.
Teams like Central Michigan, BYU and UCLA aren’t impacted much by the latter; shot-clock violations are few and far between for high-octane outfits like those. For a team like Virginia, though, it’s had a real impact. The Hoos still play at a snail’s pace -- they're 350th in adjusted tempo -- but Virginia is playing faster than it was before the rule change. Tony Bennett’s squad shaved 1.1 seconds per possession off of its average between 2014-15 and 2015-16. That’s a big difference.
Virginia will never play fast compared to some others. Speeding up is the trend, but there will always be holdouts. Programs like Virginia, Wisconsin and St. Mary’s win a lot of games and play at a slow pace, so don’t expect them to change any time soon.
“You sure picked an interesting week to ask me about this,” Rose, whose Cougars face San Diego (336th in pace) and St. Mary’s (351st), says.
Even Davis, an advocate of the pace-and-space movement, acknowledges that his way isn't the only way.
“You’re seeing the game trend faster, but having a clear identity is the most important thing,” he says. “There are a lot of ways to win, and I don’t see that ever changing.”
In the NBA, building a small roster predicated on 3-point shooting and ball movement isn’t just a method of winning a championship. Right now, it's the method.
College basketball isn’t there quite yet. For as long as Kentucky's John Calipari and North Carolina's Roy Williams, to name two, are reeling in blue-chip big men, two-post lineups won’t become obsolete.
Still, it's clear that we're living in an era where the game is more spread out than ever before, where offense reigns. For those defensive-minded coaches locked in a dark room, watching film and brainstorming ways to combat it, there’s only one thing left to say.