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Daniel Wilco | | November 12, 2018

Tracking the strange ways college basketball field goal percentage has changed over time

USA Today Sports Images St. Mary's basketball In 2018, St. Mary's shot 51.5 percent from the field — the best performance of the year. Oh, how far we've come.

The NCAA started keeping track of all teams’ field goal percentage in 1948, when teams made an average of 20.3 shots per game while shooting 29.3 percent from the field. In the 71 years of tracking, neither mark has ever been lower.

Let’s take a journey through the history of the sport to look at the trends in shooting throughout the years.

Our first stop is back in the ‘40s to see what the sport looked like seven decades ago. Here’s a video from the 1944 NCAA championship game, where Utah beat Dartmouth 42-40 in overtime:

It doesn’t take long to understand why shooting was so much worse in the 40s. Players’ forms are so drastically different than those of the modern era, and shot selection is questionable at best. Multiple players in the game above — which, we remind you, was to decide the best team in the sport that year — take shots with their back to the basket or launch 20-footers flat-footed, and there are more airballs than made shots from outside the paint.

But at this point in history, the NCAA tournament was only five years old, and the sport would see rapid growth in aptitude during its adolescence.  

Take a look at highlights from the NCAA championship in 1958, when Kentucky beat Seattle 84-72 in a year where teams shot 38.4 percent from the field — then an all-time high:

The change in the game in just 10 years is drastic (for starters, modern jump shots now exist), and it’s not hard to see why field goal percentage had increased every single year to this point and would continue to trend upwards for the next few decades.

In 1984, Division I teams shot 48.1 percent from the field, the highest mark in the history of the sport.

But that decade, something strange happened. Let’s take a look at the performance over time to see:

Division I field goal percentage since 1948

(Click here to view the full chart)

For the first 30 years, field goal percentage rises as expected. But then it quickly plateaus before dropping off. What happened?

The 3-point line.

Here's what that same chart looks like with 3-point attempts added in:

Division I field goal percentage and 3-point attempts since 1948

(Click here to view the full chart)

The 1987 season was the first in which the 3-point line was implemented across all of Division I basketball. That season, schools started to test the waters… barely. Division I teams shot an average of 9.2 3-pointers per game — an all-time low, and the only time that teams averaged fewer than 10 attempts per game. The low volume led to the best shooting year ever, with teams hitting 38.4 percent of their attempts. And the ROI for 3-pointers that season was eye-opening. Even in its first year, the 3-pointer was about 1.24 times as valuable as a 2-pointer. Teams took notice, shooting more 3-pointers every consecutive year from 1987 to 1995.

But that did come at a cost.

RELATED: The best 3-point shooting teams this century

In 1989, after peaking just five years earlier, Division I field goal percentage would fall below 47 percent for good, dropping into the range of 43-45 percent, where it has stayed since 1994.

At the same time, 3-point proficiency and popularity has increased. In 2018, Division I teams averaged 7.69 made 3-pointers on 21.85 attempts per game — both all-time highs, and more than double the numbers from 1987.

In fact, after a period of stagnation from 1995 to 2015, Division I teams have shot more and more 3-pointers each year, while — strangely enough — field goal percentage has increased in each of the past four years.

All of this came to a head in the 2018 NCAA tournament, when Villanova hit 18 3-pointers in its Final Four matchup with Kansas on the way to making 464 on the year — a Division I record. The Wildcats shot 45 percent from beyond the arc against the Jayhawks, who were 45.2 percent... from the field.

Villanova hits 13 3-pointers in first half

One thing is clear, the 3-pointer isn't going anywhere. If anything it's somehow getting more popular. And when more teams are able to hit with the accuracy of Villanova last season, well, we're going to need a bigger chart.

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