Twenty feet, nine inches: That’s the long-standing three-point arc in college basketball.
With the game increasingly oriented towards perimeter play, we see a lot more players add distance shots to their arsenal. And this says nothing of the equalizing effect it has had in the midmajor ranks. It is almost a trope that teams which cannot sign a blue chip athlete from a prep powerhouse can often find stellar shooters to keep them competitive. It’s hard to argue with the success of the strategy either.
For instance, there is not a single major conference player in the Top 10 in made three-point percentage. You have to get to Number 11 (Arkansas’ Desi Sills) to find one — and even then, only three players in the top 20 are from major conferences. Incidentally, the number two player on that list, Derrik Jameson Jr., keyed a Norfolk State upset over NIT No. 1 seed Alabama.
Perimeter-oriented play isn’t just for the Cinderallas though. In 2017-2018, Villanova finished 3rd in made three-pointers and 5th in attempts. The Wildcats would cut down the nets. Though 2019 was an aberration, with a finals featuring two defensive snuff artists, six of the Top 10 teams in 3PA made it to the NCAA tournament. Six were conference champions — one, Auburn, would make it to the Final Four. Another, Villanova, won the Big East. Two of the top three major conference teams in 3-point shooting efficiency advanced to at least the Elite 8 (Auburn, Purdue).
Not only is it an equalizer and winning basketball, it’s also fun basketball.
Ask Alabama’s Nate Oats. His Buffalo Bulls finished 7th in 3PAs per game and 24th in made baskets. It propelled a comparatively untalented squad to a dominating MAC championship, a No. 13 AP poll position, and the dismantling of a Power 5 opponent in its first round NCAA game. That fun, fast style is one of the reasons he was one of the hottest names in the sport, and what eventually made him a multimillionaire in Tuscaloosa.
So, of course, after years of player development, years of developing playbooks and recruiting plans and coaching strategies, the NCAA wants to put the brakes to all of it. Worse, they want to do so for reasons that are at best nebulous and opaque, and at worst, betray a desire to stick it to the scrappy underdogs and the frenetic pace of coaches like Oats, Pearl, Buzz, Wright in favor of half-court sets favoring interior play.
The NCAA proposes to move the three-point line to an international distance of 22 feet, 1¾ inches. The FIBA distance was implemented in this year’s NIT, and the Rules committee has tabled full discussion for June 5. If passed, the rule would take effect in the 2020 season.
“After gathering information over the last two seasons, we feel it’s time to make the change. Freedom of movement in the game remains important, and we feel this will open up the game. We believe this will remove some of the congestion on the way to the basket.”
Some of the reasons he cites for a change undoubtedly look good on paper, such as increased offensive spacing — but that’s not something that can be legislated. Other reasons are simply get off my lawn, such as “the three-point shot being too prevalent.” While other justifications seem more of a calculated move to ensure that Power 5 teams advance deep in tournament play, with a stated goal to “open up the lanes for more drives.”
Two of these are direct attacks on midmajors, as they foster play directly more beneficial to elite athletes. A walk-on at Niagara ain’t dribble-driving against Kentucky, whereas he may very well be a 48.3% spot-up shooter. The midmajor ranks simply do not have the ability to stockpile guys like Markus Howard and Ja Morant — Duke can pull four of them off their bench; even a pedestrian team like South Carolina has better, longer athletes that can exploit the proposed rule. It seems counterintuitive, with an emphasis on removing play that impedes freedom of movement, to propose a rule that invites defensive contact.
I dare suggest there may perhaps be a more than a little conservatism and intransigence on Boyle’s part, and on the part of coaches accustomed to the long-standing 1-through-5, point guard-through-center positional basketball. The modern game of wing basketball, of point forwards, of wing-it-and-fling-it, of positionless basketball, simply does not mesh in the comfortable headspace where the Ted Owens and Larry Browns resided. Think that’s speculative? Take a look at Boyle’s roster the past season: traditional seven-footer at center, traditional 6’9”-6’11” power forwards, SFs topping out at 6’7”, 6’2” guards. The results? The Colorado Buffaloes finished 8th in a bad PAC 12 and were 296th in made-3PA per game: only five major conference teams in the nation were worse. And, interestingly, of the other four bad-shooting major conference teams, three made it to postseason play using a power post approach, including Kentucky and Texas A&M.
Is one foot, four-and-a-half inches really that big of a deal? Well, Boyle tips his hand. Don’t listen to the other justifications given. He flat out said that his committee wants to make it more challenging. So, plainly the data are there that the extra 16 inches matters greatly in the college game — not a single NIT Final Four team under the FIBA shooting rules had finished above 62nd on made 3PA during the season. Only one quarterfinalist, Creighton, was even in the Top 20. Half the teams relying on perimeter shooting, including some heavy favorites, were stone-cold in the NIT and promptly swept out in the first round, including: Campbell (38th), Davidson (49th), Hofstra (58), S. Dakota State (18th). However, teams with larger, more athletic players were able to dominate and advance under the rules — including and especially those teams with behemoth post players, such as Arkansas, Texas and Colorado (Wink, wink Boyle. We see you.)
It seems clear that the proposal will negatively affect the overall composition of the sport, ensuring that those teams with the best iso athletes and dominating post players prevail; hinder the competitiveness of small schools and programs without great individual talent; pull a bait-and-switch on schools and coaches who have prepared for a 19’9” game; and completely wreck the muscle memory of young players who have spent a dozen-plus years, attempting thousands of practice shots in the gym, to develop their range and shooting limitations. It is a tantrum against modernity.
And worse, the rule will probably negatively affect Alabama as well. If you think those 16-plus inches don’t matter, practice one way of shooting for a decade, then go out in the backyard and launch a 22-ounce object into the air on a parabolic arc of nearly seven yards, and tell me how it works out.
But, of course, teams increasingly missing those shots, turning back the clock, was always the point.