Ever since the 3-pointer was introduced in college basketball during the 1986-87
season, the game has changed dramatically. While the 3 ball adds a level of excitement to the
game for fans, it has made coaching and playing more difficult. Instead of the traditional ‘work
the ball down low’ and ‘feed the big man’ mentality, there are now 7ft centers who can shoot the
3-pointer almost as well as the guards can. This makes defensive strategies extremely difficult
for teams to plan. However, shots taken from the 3-point line are not nearly as accurate as
those taken down low or in the paint. While sinking a 3 can be a great momentum swing or be a
great equalizer when facing a team with a lot of height, are some teams beginning to rely too
much on the line that exists 20ft 9in from the basket?
At the start of the 2015-16 season, the NCAA changed the shot clock from 35 seconds
to 30 seconds. While 5 seconds may not seem like a significant factor in how teams will change
their offenses, the shortened shot clock has had interesting results. Teams went from averaging
67.77 points per game in the 2014-15 season with the 35 second shot clock, to 71.85ppg with
the 30 second shot clock. This year the average has gone up again to 74.22, with some
individual teams, like UCLA, averaging 89.8 per game. A shortened shot clock will obviously
result in more possessions per game, an average of about 75 for each team, but some teams
take this to a new level by increasing their tempo as well. During the 2014-15 season, only 43
teams averaged a possession time of less than 17 seconds. In the past two years that number
has increased to over 135 teams. The reason why…the 3-pointer.
The NBA and NCAA Basketball used to vary greatly in the way the game was played.
For years the NBA has consisted of superstars who create isolation and either blow past
defenders or shoot outrageous 3 pointers in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, college basketball
had focused on rapid ball movement, strong defensive play, and finding the open shot.
However, with every passing season, they become more similar. Some college teams have
begun to rely solely on the 3-pointer to win games. The number of teams who attempted at least
40% of their shots from the 3-point line has increased from 35 teams from the 2013-14 season,
to over 80 teams in 2016-17 season. When you combine those numbers with the average time
of possession, that means a large sample of teams are simply dribbling down and firing up the
first 3-pointer they can. While 14 teams in the NCAA are shooting 41% or better from 3-point
range this season, that does not necessarily mean teams should keep firing up 3s. Of the 13
teams that have attempted over 900 3-pointers this season, only two made the NCAA
Tournament (Vanderbilt and Michigan). Not only were both of these teams knocked out before
the Elite 8, but their reliance on the 3-pointer is the exact reason they lost.
So far in the 2017 NCAA March Madness Tournament, there have been at least five teams who
have lost due to ill advised 3-point attempts late in the game. Michigan, a team that attempted
937 3-pointers throughout the season, was ultimately defeated because of their failure to work
the ball down low. After an Oregon layup, Michigan called a timeout trailing 69-68 with 1:09 left
in the game. Michigan inbounded the ball and used only 19 seconds of game clock before D.J.
Wilson attempted a 3 pointer with 49 seconds left in the game. After calling a timeout, this is the
best play the Wolverines could come up with? How does Coach John Beilein not explain to his
team that under no circumstance should a 3-pointer be taken in that scenario? Work the ball
down low and try for a high percentage shot. Michigan even gets a second chance with ten
seconds left and they still settle for a 18ft jumper before the buzzer sounds. They shot 31 3-
pointers that night and made only 11.
In the round of 64, Vanderbilt trailed Northwestern 67-66 with 14 seconds left after Matthew
Fisher-Davis’ mistakenly fouled Bryant McIntosh. Upon inbounding the ball, Vanderbilt drove
down the court and instead of working the ball down low, Riley LaChance fired up a 30ft 3-
pointer with 2 seconds left. In a 1-point game, why is a 3-point ball even a consideration? Even
if there is not a clear lane to drive to the basket, there is still a higher percentage shot in the
paint, as well as a chance to get fouled and be sent to the free throw line. Vanderbilt shot from
downtown 26 times and only made 9 in their 68-66 loss to Northwestern.
An ill advised 3-pointer ended another game in the round of 64, Princeton vs Notre Dame.
Princeton trailed Notre Dame 59-58 and grabbed the defensive rebound with 10sec left. Devin
Cannady of Princeton missed a 28ft 3-point attempt with 1 second left. Again, a team loses what
should have been a 1-point game because of a foolish 3-point attempt. Princeton also shot 31
3-pointers that game, and made only 8.
Wichita State lost to Kentucky 65-62, but the game was much closer than that. Wichita St. had
the ball with 40 seconds left and they were down 63-62. As their possession clock ran down,
Markis McDuffie missed a 26ft 3-pointer with 12 seconds left in the game. Why couldn’t they
have worked the ball down low during their 28 seconds of possession and taken a higher
percentage shot when they were only down 1 point?
Last but not least, Arizona lost to Xavier 73-71 after a defensive rebound by Arizona with 22
seconds left. Allonzo Trier decided to shoot a 24ft 3-pointer and missed. Rather than working
the ball down low and trying to send the game into overtime, Arizona went for the win and paid
In all five of the games listed above, the losing team attempted more 3-pointers than the winning
team. Only one team, Wichita St., had a better three point shooting percentage than their
opponent and still they lost. It is also no coincidence that 4 out of the 5 winning teams also had
more offensive rebounds than the losing team. By limiting the amount of 3-point attempts a
team takes per game, there are more bodies closer to the basket that can box out and grab an
offensive rebound for a second opportunity at scoring. So while sinking a long ball at the right
moment can dramatically change the momentum of a game, does it outweigh the fundamentals
of old time basketball? The results seem to prove otherwise.
Should teams continue to rely so heavily on the 3-pointer to win games?