The Trouble With Three

I'm old enough to remember when the three-point shot was a new addition to college basketball, and it was not without controversy. It's been part of the game for better than twenty years now, and you'll still hear people talking about how it's revolutionized the game, generally in a positive way. The case for this is usually based on the idea that a great three-point shooting team can hang with and even beat teams that would trounce them if they only shot twos. Another common argument is that it adds drama, giving teams that are trailing a way to claw back in the final minute.

Overall, I tend to think it's a wash. There are some benefits in terms of increased competition and drama, but the three also enables the excruciating chuck-and-foul offense that makes the final minute of tournament games take forever. And, for every time that the three-point shot allows a team to shoot their way back into a close finish, there's a game where the three-point shot leads a team to shoot their way out.

Yesterday's early game between Butler and Florida provided a great example of this.

In the final minute of the overtime, Butler had a one-point lead on Florida. After a terrible long-range shot by Butler, Florida got the ball down one with just over 30 seconds to play. They had the chance to hold the ball for the last shot, but after two or three passes, one of their guards jacked up an NBA-range three with 20 second to play.

Now, I know what the kid was thinking, which was more or less what the Butler kid was thinking on the previous possession: a three-pointer at that juncture would make it really tough for the other team to win. In Butler's case, they would've gone up four, in Florida's, up two with 20 second to play, forcing Butler to at least get a basket to force a second OT.

The problem is, it was a terrible shot, way too early, and Butler had everybody back. Ironically, it almost worked because it was such a terrible, stupid shot-- it came off the rim at an odd angle, and surprised Butler forward Matt Howard, who almost lost the rebound. He managed to tie it up, though, and the possession arrow gave the ball to Butler. Two free throws later, Florida had the ball down three, and had to take a three, which again, was a terrible rushed shot. Butler flipped the ball out toward mid-court, and the clock ran out.

Now, I'm not complaining about the result-- I really like this team, and as a big awkward white guy myself, I like being able to root for Matt Howard. But the manner of the ending was a little annoying, in a way that owes a lot to the glamor of the three-point shot. Long shots, particularly dramatic ones in the final minute, are so over-hyped that kids are prone to take them, even when it's not the right play.

This specific game owes at least as much to the knuckleheadedness of Florida's guards as the rules of the game, but you see this thing constantly in college basketball: a team that's trailing by a small amount will turn to the three too soon, and end up digging themselves deeper. For every ten-point lead that's cut to one in the final seconds, there's a one-point lead that's blown up to ten by teams shooting bad threes and fouling.

As I said above, I think it's probably a wash. Without the three-pointer, coaches and players would find some other pathological stupidity with which to mar the end of games. I mention this just as a reminder that while we always hear about the good things the three-pointer has brought to the game, it has negative effects as well.

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I wondered about Florida's shot choice too - and I'm pretty sure the coach did as well. But it's done.
Question: Are you old enough to remember the introduction of the shot clock in college basketball? I am - still don't like it. (curmudgeon mode off)

The shot clock was adopted in the NCAA only a couple of years before the three-pointer, so I do remember it, though not as well. When I played in high school there was no shot clock for the boys, while the girls had a 30-second clock; I'm not sure if that's changed or not.

I definitely remember them lowering the time from 45 seconds to 35, pushing the game slightly more toward the NBA style. I don't think it's an improvement, particularly when teams start trying to run clock. The defined limit of the shot clock encourages the worst play in basketball, namely the point guard standing out near mid-court bouncing the ball until the shot clock gets down to 10 or so, then forcing up a rushed shot. That's a great way to cough up a lead, but not a great way to win games.

You'd be much better off running a regular offense, but only shooting the ball if you have a lay-up. That can run just as much clock as the stand-and-bounce play, but has a better chance of leading to points. but it would require teams to play some fundamentally sound basketball, which is more work than a lot of players and coaches are willing to put in.

I think when the three point shot first was adopted, it helped smaller teams hang with bigger teams, but now pretty much everybody has three point shooters, so I don't think it has a big impact on competitive balance.

As for the shot clock, I agree on the stupid standing around bouncing the ball waiting for the clock to wind down, but on the other hand, without the clock, we had the travesty of the four corner offense. That was awful to watch.

The women had a 30 shot clock in the AIAW, and carried it over when the NCAA started doing womens' games in 1982.

The main problem with the 3pt shot in the NCAA is the line is just too close. This means that too many players can hit it way too often and that defending the 3pt arc doesn't open up enough space inside for a post player. The combination of the increased distance with the illegal d rules in the nba makes it much more interesting there.

Chad @ 2:

it would require teams to play some fundamentally sound basketball, which is more work than a lot of players and coaches are willing to put in.


I was at college when the 3-point line was introduced. Being only 5' tall, but with a good shot, I loved it. Most of my shots came from that range anyway before some big guy could tower over me until it went dark! Suddenly I upped my average per game without having to do anything different.

Chad, see if you can find the link to the Gamecast coverage of the Butler-Florida game and look at the shot chart. Compare the 2nd half to overtime. Hint: zero 3-point makes in the 2nd half, one long shot made from just inside the line, all the rest in the paint.

Florida played OT like some football teams do: trying to win it on a single play rather than just grind it out like they had been doing.

NC and a few others are responsible for the shot clock. Get the lead, hold the ball, get fouled, make the free throws. Without a 3-point shot, the team behind could never catch up. Indeed, this last detail is one reason the shot clock alone was not enough to make the last five minutes worth watching.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 28 Mar 2011 #permalink