When this season began, Ronnie Carr, a 6'3" sophomore guard for Western Carolina University, was just one of those jump-shooters who, as they say, "could fill it up." But at 7:06 p.m. on Nov. 29, 1980, Carr became a footnote in college basketball history. That night the Catamounts were playing at home against Middle Tennessee State, and 3:51 into the game they trailed the Blue Raiders 5-4. After a Middle Tennessee turnover gave the Catamounts the ball out of bounds under the Raider basket, Western's Larry Caldwell found Carr wide open deep in the left corner. When Carr buried the 23-foot jump shot, the 2,750 fans in Reid Gymnasium erupted, and the referees halted play to retire the ball permanently. A phone call was immediately placed to Southern Conference headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., and every detail of the accomplishment, even the exact time, was dutifully reported. A few days later, the conference shipped an 11x17 glossy photograph of Carr, the historic ball bearing his autograph, and a 90-second video tape of the occasion to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
Why all the hoopla over a hoop? Because of Carr's redoubtable accuracy, this particular effort from downtown Cullowhee had special significance; it was the first three-point field goal ever scored by a college player in a regulation game and marked the beginning of a season-long experiment. The Southern Conference, in conjunction with the NCAA rules committee, is trying to determine whether the three-pointer, anathema to traditionalists but a delight to those loose constructionists who prefer the wide-open style of the NBA, deserves a place in the college game.
Last summer the NCAA gave the conference permission to test the proposed rule during its 72-game regular-season schedule, the postseason tournament in March and in selected games against non-conference opposition. At the end of the season the NCAA rules committee will make an evaluation. "There are only three ways this thing can go," says J. Dallas Shirley, Southern Conference supervisor of officials. "The NCAA can say thanks a lot for all your effort, say let's experiment with this for another year, using either your conference or a different one, or adopt the three-point goal outright. I'm not sure one season would be enough time to swing it through, however."
Although the three-pointer is making its official college debut, the concept's genesis can be traced back to Howard Hobson, a member of the Hall of Fame, who won 400 games in 21 seasons as a coach at Oregon, Yale and Southern Oregon, and who first demonstrated the possibilities of the three-pointer while a 42-year-old graduate student at Columbia in 1945. Hobson, who in 1939 guided Oregon to the first NCAA basketball title, staged an exhibition between Columbia and Fordham in which three points were awarded for baskets made from 21 feet and beyond. But although the demonstration was impressive, the three-pointer never was adopted until the old American Basketball League was formed in 1961. Six years later the ABA employed it. But not until now has it been given a serious trial in the college game.
The Southern Conference, which is often obscured by the great shadow cast by the Atlantic Coast Conference, saw the experiment as an opportunity to get some attention. "There's no question that exposure's one of the paramount reasons we're doing this," says Furman Coach Eddie Holbrook. "When you're in the location we're in you have to fight for all the publicity you can get."
But while the three-point rule has attracted the expected media attention, few could have imagined the impact it would have on the early conference season. Firing from behind an arc drawn 22 feet from the basket, conference teams have connected on 48 of 144 three-point attempts (33%) in the first 32 games, 18 of them in league play. So far this season NBA players shooting from behind a three-point arc ranging from 22' to 23'9" at the apex are averaging 23%.
Most Southern Conference coaches use the three-pointer as a late-game attempt to come from behind. It already has been the deciding factor in five games. In Davidson's 79-73 double-overtime upset win at Marshall on Dec. 8, a 24-foot jumper by Wildcat Guard John Carroll with 22 seconds remaining cut the Thundering Herd lead to 65-63, rather than 65-62. After getting the ball back on a missed free throw, the Wildcats scored a two-point basket that sent the game into overtime. "We would have won the game if it hadn't been for the three-pointer," muttered Marshall Coach Bob Zuffelato. "That's why I don't like the doggone thing."
Zuffelato's feelings are based on more than just one game, however. "I really don't think we need gimmicks at the college level," he says. But he admits that the fans have taken to the experiment. "You can hear the murmuring in the stands, feel the anticipation," he says. "It makes me cringe, but it's great for the fans." Holbrook had reservations about the rule, but they may have been eased a bit after a 5-for-5 performance by Paladin Forward Michael Hunt in an 85-81 overtime defeat of Western Carolina. "The more I think about it the more I ask who the game is really for," Holbrook says. "I guess I let my coaching ego take precedence over the fact that it's for the fans and spectators."
But while the offense excites the fans, defensing long-distance shooters can become a nightmare for the coaches and players. "You can't relax a second," Holbrook says. "We try to make the good shooters put the ball on the floor and literally drive them into the two-point area. We try to overplay them and deny them the ball, and when they do get the ball we're all over them."
"You don't ever want to foul on a three-point goal," says Zuffelato. "Because then we're talking about four possible points. It gives an unfair advantage to the offense."
One offense it hasn't helped as much as the coach might have liked is Western Carolina's. Even with Carr, the Catamounts dropped their first two Southern Conference games although they were preseason favorites to win the title. Nonetheless, Coach Steve Cottrell, who is one of the rule's strongest supporters (so is Davidson's Eddie Biedenbach), says, "The positive benefits outweigh the negative. I assure you, Western Carolina is going to provide its share of three-point data to the NCAA."
Western has designed plays to set up the three-pointer, most of them for Carr, who may be a more dangerous shooter outside the semicircle—far outside, in fact—than inside. "His freshman year I tried to do some great coaching and attempted to explain the percentage factor," says Cottrell. "So in practice one day I moved him in a couple of steps and he went 1 for 10. Later I apologized to the team and to him for having done it." Carr leads the conference in three-point attempts (22) and field goals (9) and ranks second in scoring behind Appalachian State's Charles Paytor with an 18.8-points-per-game average. (NCAA stats count Southern Conference three-point baskets as two points.)
In high school Carr copied the jumper of his older brother, Everne, a former St. Louis University player, and developed a fluid, graceful one-hander. "It's the motion I have in my shot that counts," he says. "I try to use my legs and my arms and try to get good balance. I feel so comfortable with it, it's like I was born with it."
Though Western dropped a 77-68 decision to Davidson last week, Carr exhibited his extraordinary range. After a lackluster first half in which he went 4 for 11 and was chided for forcing his shots, Carr came back in the second half with a pair of three-pointers. Those two, plus one each by Caldwell and Kevin Young, cut a 10-point margin with 1:25 remaining to four points with 35 seconds left. Carr finished with 26 points; he was 11 of 21 from the floor overall, and converted four of seven three-pointers, one a 35-foot heave at the final buzzer.
Although Carr knows and accepts his role as Western Carolina's designated shooter, he doesn't want that tag to carry over into the NBA. "I think about the pros sometimes, but I don't think I'm a complete player yet. I'm working on my defense and my ball handling. My shooting helps me to be a part of this team, but sometimes it bothers me. I want to be a total player, but right now I accept my role and I'm proud of it." So he'll just keep firing from 22 feet away.
The Catamounts' Carr leads the league in three-pointers.