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Original Issue


The three-point shot, now grudgingly accepted by coaches, has changed the college game

For those who believed disaster would come to college hoops in threes, think again. Since the NCAA's 19'9" three-point arc came into being during the 1986-87 season, we have witnessed higher scoring, wilder games and larger crowds; the removal of the gym rat from the endangered-species list; one coach, Kentucky's Rick Pitino, parlay his total commitment to the three into a contract-plus-perks package worth $855,000 a year; other coaches cling to their old philosophies and lower tax brackets; the dunk take a back seat; the decline of fighting; and, over the grumbling of the few (mostly coaches), a heightened sense of excitement by the many (almost everyone else).

Though one big question clouds all discussion of the three—Is it too damn easy?—it has become clear that the 19'9" shot has altered the college game more than any rule change since the center jump was eliminated after each basket in the late '30s. Underutilized as a freshman and handled with care as a sophomore and a junior, the three has come into its own as a senior. Even old foes, such as La Salle coach Speedy Morris, are warming up to it. Somewhat. Morris's reaction in '87, when La Salle tried 12.7 threes a game: "I think idiots put in the rule." His current perspective, with the No. 15 Explorers' trey rate at 22.7 a game: "I don't like it, but it has created interest in the sport."

The three-pointer's impact is now quantifiable. Compared with its first season, roughly seven more three-point attempts are going up per game this season, and two more are going in (see illustration below). Meanwhile, the percentage of threes made has dropped from 38.4% to 36.4%, indicating that teams are making a greater effort to defend the arc. "People who say the line is too close because they can make seven of 10, let me put one of my defenders on them," says Kansas coach Roy Williams. But such a commitment stretches the D and permits more room for offensive players to maneuver in the interior because there is less double-teaming down low. "In the past, we stressed trying to take away the high-percentage shots," says Arizona coach Lute Olson. "Now you must extend your defense."

The three-pointer, which was foisted on coaches by NCAA rules committee chairman Dr. Edward Steitz, has proved to be the perfect complement to the 45-second shot clock, which was installed in 1985-86. Pre-three, even with the clock ticking, there was little to prevent a team from clogging the lane with a zone, giving up the outside jumper and letting the tempo sag. With the three, scoring has shot up by 9.2%. And unlike baseball's designated-hitter rule, which adds similar punch to a game but detracts from strategy, the trey makes basketball more challenging to coach and more interesting to watch. Says North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, "Before the three-pointer and the shot clock, the game had almost gotten—god forbid—boring."

Just check the turnstiles. In the two seasons before the rule was passed, attendance dipped for the first time in NCAA annals; the past two seasons have seen record turnouts. The attraction? The shot has such a reasonable chance for success that it creates a communal sense of anticipation from the moment it's released. (On Dec. 23, Southwestern Louisiana edged Kentucky 116-113 in a shootout that set an NCAA record for oohs, aahs and treys attempted—84.) It permits flurries of points and wild comebacks. (On Jan. 20, Clarence Armstrong of visiting Drexel canned three threes in a row in the last 13 seconds to beat Bucknell 87-86.) And it gently tips the balance of power from the slam-dunking Goliaths to the mad-bombing Davids. (On Jan. 6, Scott Joyce, a 5'8" sophomore reserve from Butte Community College, scored 12 points on four three-pointers in the final 49 ticks of regulation to help defeat Shasta Community College 116-115 in double overtime.)

Another salutary side effect has been the reduction in muggings under the basket. Says Dale Kelley, the supervisor of officials in the Metro Conference, "It draws players away from the inside, where play is often very physical, which, in turn, can sometimes lead to fighting."

So all that's left is for the game's leading strategists to learn how best to exploit the arc, right? Not quite. There are still those who throw their hands up in disgust at every three. "It's such a short, baby shot that it's awful," says UCLA coach Jim Harrick. "I don't believe there should be rules that dictate my coaching style." That attitude sounds pretty tough, but is it smart?

"It's a coach's responsibility to do whatever he feels is best for the team," says Louisville coach Denny Crum. "If he's got the guys to shoot the three-point shot effectively, then I would fault him for not doing it." Pitino, the godfather of Steitz's brainchild, has plumbed the three's possibilities deeper than anyone else, and with success. He used it to take Providence to the Final Four in 1987, to help the New York Knicks to the NBA's Atlantic Division title in '89 and to keep himself in Armani suits for the next decade with the deal he signed at Kentucky last June. So far this season, his Wildcats have figured in five three-point records, and they lead the country in three-point shots made (212).

The action in Lexington has been so furious that some former Wildcat guards yearn longingly for their old Kentucky home, now refurbished into a three-point launching pad. Says Dicky Beal, class of '84, "They're allowed so much more creativity than when we played." Louie Dampier, '67: "I can see myself really enjoying playing for coach Pitino." Jim Master, '84: "If only I were 10 years younger. To be able to take those shots from all over the floor and not worry about coming out, that's an incredible feeling." Though Kentucky is a .500 ball club that is on NCAA probation, some rivals feel the bluegrass may be greener in Lexington. Says Louisville guard LaBradford Smith, "During practice everyone wants to be someone from Kentucky, because they can shoot from anywhere."

Other schools have developed similarly permissive styles with positive results. Says Holy Cross coach George Blaney, whose Crusaders won 15 of their first 18 games with the aid of 97 threes, "We have two rules: One is, you don't shoot it on the first pass. Two is, you always shoot it when you're open. We try to move the ball in first, then take the three-pointer on the second or third pass."

Paul Westhead uses it to force a helter-skelter tempo at 20th-ranked Loyola Marymount. He practically gives up two points at one end to get an opportunity for three for long-distance shooters Bo Kimble, the nation's leading scorer, and Jeff Fryer. "Our guys have to sprint to designated spots on the court, and four of those are in the three-point area," Westhead says. "If the ball is passed to someone in those spots, he has the absolute green light to shoot."

The most surprising trend concerning the trey may be found in the fast break; more and more teams are looking to pull up rather than drive to the basket. "When you think about it, the three-pointer affects the game more than the dunk because of the extra point," says Duke guard Phil Henderson. "Smart fans should get more excited about that." Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan has chosen to enter the three-point contest the night before this Sunday's NBA All-Star Game rather than go after his third slam-dunk title.

Suddenly, the ability to shoot, a trait that for a time seemed to rank third behind quickness and power, has become a much valued commodity. Kansas, a team noticeably short of rim-rattlers, has vaulted to No. 2 in the polls with a cast of long-range shooters. The Jayhawks fire the three frequently (15.4 attempts a game) and effectively (45.9%, third in the nation), spreading the floor for their exquisite backdoor cuts. When Williams really wants a three-for-all, he summons 6'1" reserve Terry Brown, a junior college transfer who cocks the ball behind his right shoulder in a manner only a chiropractor could love. Brown's first 11 field goals as a Jayhawk were treys, and he is sinking almost half his attempts from beyond the arc. At Allen Fieldhouse, students hand out Xeroxed $3 bills with Brown's photo in the middle. They read: IN TERRY WE TRUST.

Brown is one of a wide range of specialists who can almost instantly turn a game inside out. Indeed, the three has also brought new life to those sun-starved, often short and awkward creatures who once spent hour after hour firing jump shots in an empty gym. Before the trey, this species—known variously as the suburban kid, the small-town kid, the backyard kid or, more broadly, the gym rat—could be found on the end of college benches, waving towels and reminding us that, yes, hard work could earn you a letter jacket. Nice pets to sic on the occasional zone, but not really, well, players.

Now one of them can mean instant offense. Consider Ohio University's Dave Jamerson, a not particularly quick 6'4" senior guard from Stow, Ohio, who averaged 19 points last season. Now he's second in the nation in scoring (32.7), thanks to the three and an offense designed to let him rapid-fire it. He pumped in 60 points against Charleston on Dec. 21, converting an NCAA record 14 treys (in 17 attempts). "The art of shooting had kind of gone astray, but you see it coming back now," Jamerson says. "It's all footwork, timing and the quick release, and a lot of that is practice. Along with playing in the summer, I shoot an hour or two a day. When you shoot that many shots, it gets a lot easier."

A more extreme case is 6'4", 152-pound stick figure Travis Bice, a sophomore at UNLV who leads the Big West Conference in three-point percentage at 51.1%. Bice is a walk-on out of Simi Valley (Calif.) High who spent his first season at Vegas on the scout team and his second as a redshirt. At times he looks like a Yugo on a court full of Porsches, but his ability to shoot the three has earned him a scholarship and some rare attention. In the preseason NIT, California went into a box-and-one to stop Bice after he had made four straight treys over 2:15 in a 101-81 UNLV win. "The last time I saw a box-and-one was in the eighth grade," Bice says.

On the other end of the scale is Georgia Tech's multi-talented junior, Dennis Scott. The three was hurting his career. For his first two seasons at Georgia Tech, the 6'8" Scott seemed to have an equal affinity for both the arc and the golden arches of McDonald's. He was an overweight underachiever, content to stay on the perimeter. As a result, his stock dropped badly with pro scouts.

Still a deadly gunner, Scott has slimmed down by 20 pounds to 221 this season, and is using the three to complement his game rather than to consume it. His scoring average has jumped from 20.3 in 1988-89 to 28.8. "I can shoot from a distance, but I'm showing this year I can post up," Scott says. "The whole picture is mixed up as far as the defensive players are concerned. Nobody knows what I'll do next."

There's no such mystery at Southwestern Louisiana. The Ragin' Cajuns' top triple threat is 6'4" senior Sydney Grider, who has a familial connection to trick shots. His father, Josh, was a Harlem Globetrotter in the '50s. (It should be noted that Trotter owner Abe Saperstein originated the three-pointer in 1961, when he founded the American Basketball League. Saperstein, 5'3", wanted to put the little man back in the game, so he awarded an extra point for shots made from beyond a 25-foot stripe.) Says Grider, "When the NCAA put in that line, it was like rewarding me for the range I have. But like my coach says, my own three-point line is closer to the NBA's [23'9"] than the NCAA's."

Coaches who once viewed three-point specialists with the disdain linebackers hold for field goal kickers are hungry to sign them up. "It used to be that you would look for a point guard, a big guy, et cetera," Olson says. "Now you're always on the lookout for that one pure shooter."

Such a player is Marquis Hicks, a senior at Frederick Douglass High in Atlanta who, at 6 feet, has a point guard's size but a shooting guard's mentality. "He doesn't even look for other players," says schoolboy scout Bob Gibbons, who publishes a recruiting sheet called All-Star Sports Report. "I wouldn't give you a plugged nickel for him if not for his ability as a three-point shooter. He's amazing." Hicks has accepted a scholarship to Oklahoma.

Which brings us, inevitably, to that nagging query: The three-point arc may belong in the game, but is it painted where it belongs? Answers vary. It gets thumbs up from Marquette coach Kevin O'Neill: "I'm one that likes it right where it is. It's great when a 7-footer can shoot from that distance and make it." Thumbs down from Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech: "It seems like officials are throwing up the touchdown signal on a normal shot. I'd say move the line back, but don't eliminate it."

And the 19'9" distance gets pursed lips from former UCLA coach John Wooden: "If you're going to give somebody three points for standing on the perimeter and hitting a 19-foot [sic] shot, how do you reward the players who work the perfect give-and-go? Getting the ball inside takes solid fundamental skills and the toughness to go inside. That's the kind of play and teamwork that should be rewarded."

A survey of coaches at the 1987 Final Four showed that 36% of them wanted to see the line moved back. Some suggested redrawing it at 21'9", halfway between 19'9", which the high schools have been using since 1987-88, and the NBA's 23'9". "It's a natural progression," Harrick says. "It's just common sense."

Most seem to favor switching to the international stripe, which is 20'6" out. Crum, a newly appointed member of the NCAA coaches' rules committee, is one. "That's certainly better than where it is," he says. "I just don't like rewarding a player with an extra point for doing something that's relatively easy."

Ultimately, moving the three-point line farther away may assuage the egos of some coaches who feel that Steitz dictated the rule to them. And maybe it makes some sense to adopt 20'6", given that the current distance is shared with high schools and is shy of international standards. But no, the three is not too easy now; it's just easy enough. College basketball is more exciting than ever, by a long shot.




Grider (11) stretches defenses to the limit.



In spite of his diet, Scott frequently feasts on the trey.



Pitino's dedication to the three-point shot has made converts of the Wildcat faithful.



Jamerson (far right) is the new breed of gym rat who opens up the middle with his treys.




Many coaches would like to see collegians shoot the three-pointer from the 20'6" international distance. That's nine inches farther than the current shot but 39 inches short of the deepest part of the NBA arc. After all, even high schoolers get three from 19'9".

NCAA 19'9"
NBA 23'9"