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  • With a weekend still to go in the NCAA tournament, players have fired a record number of treys. More and more, long-range shots are the great equalizer: The teams that reached the Final Four will need to sink them, or be sunk.
By Andy Staples
April 02, 2019

This story appears in the April 8, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.

Texas Tech guard Matt Mooney made history with a shot during an Elite Eight upset of Gonzaga on March 30, though he had no idea of its significance. On a 21-footer from the top of the key with 6:53 remaining in the first half, Mooney sank the 975th made three-pointer of this year's NCAA tournament, breaking the record, set in 2018.

Given that the field expanded from 64 to 68 teams in 2011, regular updates of volume records are to be expected. What is shocking: The mark came with more than 6½ games left. Through the Elite Eight, teams made 1,030 of 3,008 attempts from deep (34.2%), and the per-game numbers track with the recent uptick in threes launched in the last two NCAA tournaments. According to data compiled by Ken Pomeroy, the percentage of long-range attempts per tournament game hovered around 32 in 2014 and '15. But in '16, the number rose to 35, then cleared 38 last year. Through the first 64 games of this year's Big Dance, the average sits at 40.7%.

There's no better illustration of the evolution of a three-point revolution than Virginia's 80–75 overtime win over Purdue in the South Regional final. In 2000, Dick Bennett's Wisconsin team beat Gene Keady's Purdue squad 64–60 to earn a berth in the Final Four. Tony Bennett was an assistant for his dad at the time and would achieve massive success using Dick's suffocating Pack-Line defense and snail's pace offense. In Louisville last Saturday, Tony led Virginia against a Boilermakers team coached by Matt Painter, a guard under Keady and his hand-picked replacement. The basic principles hadn't changed much over the past two decades. But what about the numbers? In '00, the teams combined to make 14 of 39 treys. In '19, they combined for 23 of 59.

Bennett tore his play card in half when Purdue junior guard Carsen Edwards—who scored 42 against Virginia and broke Glen Rice's tournament record for made threes (27) in just four games—banked in a triple from the right wing for a two-point lead with 1:10 remaining in regulation. But it was a shot he hit with 3:45 left in the first half that scared Bennett more. Edwards rose over two Cavaliers, 6'2" junior Kyle Guy and 6'10" senior Jack Salt, from 25 feet. Virginia's defense is not designed to stretch that far, and it left only three Cavs to guard four players inside the arc. Edwards's success from so deep out allowed Purdue to take advantage of all that space the rest of the game.

Edwards topped the scoring outputs of Coppin State and William & Mary's entire teams in games against Virginia this season. He came one point shy of what Clemson scored in an ACC game on Jan. 12 and seven points shy of what Oregon scored in a Sweet 16 game on March 28.

Virginia wouldn't have survived the barrage from Edwards & Co. had Guy not fought his way out of a three-point slump. Entering the second half he had missed 26 of his last 29 tries. "That's not going to stop me from shooting," Guy said after the game. "I'm always in rhythm, especially when my guys are looking for me. I just was going to keep shooting. I have confidence in myself. I knew that it was going to fall eventually. It fell at the right time." Indeed it did. Guy made five of his next nine and finished with 25 points.

"Being able to shut Coach's critics up is awesome," Guy said after the game. "Being able to shut our critics up is awesome. They said we couldn't win in March, and we're doing it. They said that defense couldn't win games, and it did."

Bennett and Painter, while maintaining much of what their coaching forefathers believed, want their teams shooting threes. So do most coaches, and the fact that these numbers jumped in 2016 is no accident. That's the year the Warriors won their first NBA title of the three-point era. The Dubs showed the analytically minded that mid-range jumpers are for suckers. Either shoot high-percentage two-pointers near the lane or jack threes efficiently enough that the extra point premium outweighs the higher likelihood of missing.

College teams have always loved the three-point line more than their NBA counterparts. (Three-pointers make up 35.8% of NBA shots compared with 38.7% in Division I.) Villanova coaches, for example, did a study in 2013 that suggested a combination of higher volume three-point shooting and more aggressive perimeter defense would yield better results. In the next six years the Wildcats won a pair of NCAA titles.

Each of the Final Four participants has its own special relationship with the three. After running the clock down, Bennett's players are under orders to take either a layup or an open three whenever possible. Texas Tech is an average shooting team from distance (36.5%), but the Red Raiders hold opponents to 29.3% from behind the arc, ninth-best in the nation according to kenpom.com. Combine this with their No. 3 rank in two-point percentage defense (42.0%) and Tech opponents simply don't get many open shots. Michigan State is an above-average three-point shooting (38.0%) team that forces opponents to rely too heavily on the three by clamping down inside the arc; the Spartans rank No. 2 in two-point percentage defense.

And then there's Auburn.

The Tigers took 378 three-pointers during a 12-game win streak that led them to the first Final Four in school history. Only Purdue (123) put up more threes than Auburn (121) in the first four rounds, and the Tigers ranked second to the Boilermakers in average attempts among teams that won at least one tournament game. In the Sweet 16, Auburn overwhelmed No. 1 seed North Carolina 97–80 by going 17 of 37 from three-point range. "Seventeen is the most threes any of my teams have ever given up in 16 years," stunned Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said afterward.

On the CBS postgame show after Auburn's 77–71 overtime upset of Kentucky in the Elite Eight, proud Auburn alumnus Charles Barkley considered the possibility of the unlikeliest Final Four participant cutting down the nets in Minneapolis. "We've got a shooter's chance," said Sir Charles.

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