RICHMOND SHOOTS THEM. OHIO STATE DOES TOO. MORE THAN IN ANY OTHER YEAR, THE THREE IS THE SHOT OF CHOICE IN THE TOURNAMENT, AND THE TEAMS THAT REACH THE FINAL FOUR WILL BE THE ONES THAT LIGHT IT UP FROM BEHIND THE ARC
Forget the First Four. The 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament didn't truly get under way until Thursday, March 17, at 1:53 p.m. Mountain Time in Denver. That's when a player you've never heard of, representing a school you only recently knew existed, launched a game-winning three-point shot that would eventually leave players in dark jerseys leaping in celebration and players in white wandering around in disbelief, their multimillionaire coach staring grimly at an unexpected early spring break. Goodbye fourth-seeded Louisville, hello No. 13 seed Morehead State. And welcome, Eagles senior Demonte Harper of Nashville, to the pantheon of NCAA tournament heroes.
Twenty-four years after it was adopted by college basketball, the three-point shot remains the NCAA tournament's signature image (see: Bryce Drew of Valparaiso, 1998; Mario Chalmers of Kansas, 2008; Ali Farokhmanesh of Northern Iowa, '10). It's the biggest momentum shifter and the greatest equalizer, the weapon of choice for the undersized and the underdogs. But this year, teams all over the bracket are relying heavily on it. The squads that advanced to the Sweet 16 are hitting at a 41.0% clip. Even top overall seed Ohio State, which is shooting 42.4% from the arc this season (best in the country), is making a sizzling 56.0% after two East Regional blowouts. As a result the tournament so far has been a three-for-all and a validation of Memphis coach Josh Pastner's tournament-eve prediction: "It's the teams that shoot the three well that are going to advance, this year more than others."
The decision to push the line back from 19'9" to 20'9" before the 2008--09 season has done little to staunch the deluge. Five years ago, when players were launching from closer in, tournament teams averaged 33.7% behind the arc. Entering this year's Sweet 16, teams were shooting 35.5%. "If you look at the best of the best of college three-point shooters, they aren't shooting on the line anyway," says Arizona assistant Archie Miller. "If you moved it back to the NBA range [23'9"], I think you'd see a significant dip in percentages. But I don't think that line being moved back has had a big effect on the players who can really shoot it."
There's little question a lot of players can. The triple has been impacting blowouts as much as upsets, and, in some cases, upsets that are blowouts. Consider Virginia Commonwealth, the fourth-place team from the Colonial Athletic Association. The Rams' inclusion in the tournament over Colorado or Virginia Tech sent ESPN's Dick Vitale, among others, into an apoplectic rant. Those critics have been shot down. VCU knocked off USC 59--46 in a First Four game in Dayton on March 16 behind nine three-pointers, then rushed to Chicago and hit 12 of 25 threes—including 6 of 10 by reserve Brandon Rozzell—to crush No. 6 seed Georgetown 74--56 two days later. And just in case the naysayers still weren't convinced, the Rams blew away No. 3 seed Purdue 94--76 on Sunday with another eight threes, bringing their three-game three total to 29.
Like VCU, Butler was another team that was on the bracket bubble just a few weeks ago and used the three to shoot down a tournament heavyweight. Matt Howard's free throw may have capped the wild finish in the Bulldogs' 71--70 upset of the Southeast region's No. 1 seed Pitt last Saturday, but it was teammate Shelvin Mack's seven threes that really killed the Panthers. A day later Marquette could point to one three in particular that allowed it to survive Syracuse: with 25.1 seconds left and the game knotted at 59, junior guard Darius Johnson-Odom connected from the top of the key, giving the Golden Eagles the lead for good and earning him praise from his coach, Buzz Williams, who marveled at his "big, big stones."
The three was also the primary weapon for Ohio State in its more expected advance to the Sweet 16. In a 98--66 demolition of George Mason, the Buckeyes hit 16 of 26 (61.5%) threes. Though the sniper in that game was senior David Lighty, who dropped 7 of 7 from downtown, the Buckeyes' usual assassin is 6'6" senior Jon Diebler. This year Diebler has taken 79.7% (220 of 276) of his shots from beyond the arc, and he's made a mind-blowing 50.0%, tied for second best in the country. Each basket, says Ohio State assistant Jeff Boals, represents hours of practice: "For every thousand shots Jon shoots, he makes one in a game. He's just a relentless practice shooter."
Not far behind Ohio State in the national rankings is Richmond (40.0%, eighth), Arizona (39.9%, 10th), Kentucky (39.6%, 11th) and Kansas (38.8%, 20th), all teams that reached the Sweet 16. The Jayhawks boast nine players who have made more than 10 threes this year, all of whom shoot 36.0% or better. Markieff Morris—a junior power forward who at 6'10" is an inch taller than his twin, Marcus, the Big 12 player of the year—has made 24 and, at 42.1%, is the most accurate long-range bomber on the team. "If you're a coach scouting us and you're looking at the box score, you're saying, Holy Moses, who do we back off of?" says Kansas director of basketball operations Barry Hinson.
Wisconsin's roster is likewise dotted with bigs who are as comfortable shooting three-pointers as they are posting up. Jared Berggren and Mike Bruesewitz, two sophomore forwards from small towns in Minnesota who are 6'10" and 6'6", respectively, came off the bench to hit 4 of 5 three-pointers in the Badgers' 72--58 win over Belmont last Thursday. Two days later Bruesewitz, whose 220-pound body is as burly as his name suggests, made the biggest three-pointer of the Badgers' season when he connected from the right side to break a 61--61 deadlock with Kansas State that put Wisconsin ahead to stay in a 70--65 win.
The big man with an outside touch is still a novelty on some teams, but Wisconsin has been recruiting that player for years. In fact, the Badgers rarely recruit a kid of any size who can't shoot the three well. (Junior point guard Jordan Taylor, whose outside shooting has improved from 19.2% as a freshman to 43.6% this year, was an exception.) "You go into any high school gym in the country and the kids are either shooting threes or trying to dunk," says Badgers assistant Greg Gard. "My seven-year-old son, all he wants to do is see how far he can shoot it from the hoop or go do dunks on the Nerf hoop in his room."
Given the proliferation of shooters, it's no surprise that more teams are putting a special emphasis on perimeter defense. "Guarding the three is about as important a thing as you can do in college right now," says Miller.
Lockdown perimeter defense, along with much improved outside shooting, have transformed the Wildcats under Miller's brother, Sean, now in his second year in Tucson. A 16--15 team last year that shot just 35.8% from the arc while allowing teams to shoot 31.4%, the Wildcats this year made 39.9% entering the NCAA tournament and held teams to 28.8%, best in the Pac-10. Their main objective on defense is to protect the lane from penetration and not get overextended. "If you start running at the ball, you give teams great opportunities for kickouts," says Archie Miller.
Arizona has seven guys who have made 25 or more threes this year; four of them shoot better than 40%, including 6'8" sophomore forward and likely lottery pick Derrick Williams, who made just 4 of 16 attempts last year. After a summer spent launching 400 to 500 shots a day six days a week at a gym in Los Angeles, Williams has improved dramatically. This year he has hit on 36 of 62 attempts (58.1%) and is on pace to surpass Steve Kerr's school accuracy mark of 57.3%, set back at the dawn of the long-ball era, 1987--88.
It is perhaps a reflection of the clutch nature of Williams—who saved Arizona's season twice this past weekend, with a heroic block of a last-second shot by Memphis last Friday and with a late and-one against Texas in a 70--69 win on Sunday—that his game accuracy far surpasses his practice accuracy. "Whatever he shoots in games, it's about half that in practice," says teammate Kevin Parrom.
Unlike Arizona, San Diego State isn't a great three-point shooting team—the Aztecs' 6 of 11 three-pointers against Temple last Saturday was a rare display of marksmanship—but under the tutelage of assistant Justin Hutson, the Aztecs have become almost as stingy on the defensive side. Their 30.9% three-point defense ranked 24th in the nation during the regular season. "We were a good defensive team last year, but we had three or four young guys who didn't realize how good people can shoot it at this level," says Hutson. This year, he adds, "Everyone bought into giving that effort on defense."
Of course, you can commit to defending the perimeter all you want and still have no answer for BYU's Jimmer Fredette. Jimmer, who should become the first player since 1994 to win both the scoring title (28.8 points per game) and the national player of the year award, had 34 points, including seven three-pointers, in an 89--67 blowout of Gonzaga last Saturday that sent the Cougars to their first Sweet 16 since 1981. "Believe it or not, I thought we defended him O.K.," said Bulldogs coach Mark Few, noting that Fredette's teammates combined for an additional seven threes. "If you're not dialed into what you're doing, he can make you pay in a hurry. He had a couple of dribble-up transition threes. That's a hard guard."
This week in the Southeast Regional in New Orleans, Fredette and BYU will face Florida, a team that won its second straight national title four years ago while deploying the nation's ninth-best three-point attack (40.9%) and second-best perimeter defense (28.5%). Alas, this Florida squad is off the pace on both counts: These Gators shoot 35.7% (103rd) and limit foes to 31.5% (33rd). Neither is Duke, last year's champion, as ferociously protective of the perimeter as usual. After holding opponents to 28.3% from the arc last year, the Blue Devils have slacked off to 31.6%.
Will any of those numbers matter this weekend? They are, after all, just averages. As Demonte Harper, who missed all five of his threes before hitting the game-winner against Louisville, can tell you, when it comes to glory—or, for that matter, infamy—in the NCAA tournament, timing is everything. "Threes are a dangerous weapon," said Morehead State guard Ty Proffitt the day after the Eagles' win, "but you can shoot 60 percent one day and beat anybody and come out and shoot 10 percent and get beaten by anyone." He is a prophet, indeed. The next day he and his teammates struggled from the arc (14.3%) and everywhere else and were soundly beaten 65--48 by Richmond. They were gone, but thanks to the three, they were not forgotten.
"THREES ARE A DANGEROUS WEAPON," PROFFITT SAYS, "BUT YOU CAN SHOOT 60 PERCENT ONE DAY AND BEAT ANYBODY AND COME OUT AND SHOOT 10 PERCENT AND GET BEATEN BY ANYONE."
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Photograph by ROBERT BECK
LOUISVILLE SLUGGER Harper's majestic three helped knock out the Cardinals, but Morehead's run ended when the Eagles went cold from beyond the arc against Richmond.
ARC MADNESS Like his team, Williams (23) improved dramatically on three-pointers this season, helping the Wildcats go from tournament outsider to a spot in the Sweet 16.