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How Houston’s NRG Stadium could decide the national champion

Will NRG Stadium have an adverse impact on Final Four play?

It’s not a secret that the three-point shot is en vogue. The degree, however, to which that’s the case, is more stunning. As SI’s Luke Winn pointed out on Sunday, three of the four teams remaining in this year’s tournament take more than 40.0% of their field goal attempts from three-point range. That’s a high number—as Winn also points out, just one team in the past decade (VCU in 2011) shot the deep ball at that high a volume.

So, what does all that amount to? Oddly enough, the elephant in the room at this weekend’s Final Four is the room itself.

It’s safe to say, knowing the teams involved, that a lot of threes will fly. And Houston’s NRG Stadium—particularly during last year’s regional tournament games, when it hosted eventual title-winner Duke—has been a subject of discussion due to noticeably deflated three-point shooting percentages. The 71,500 seat arena, normally home to the NFL’s Houston Texans, also hosted the 2011 Final Four.

What happened last year? Gonzaga shot 3 of 19 in a Sweet 16 victory over UCLA, Duke shot 3 of 9 against Utah, UCLA hit just 3 of 13 against the Zags, and the Utes hit 4 of 16 while falling to the Blue Devils. The UCLA–Gonzaga game featured 19 combined, consecutive misses at one point. Following those games, college hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy analyzed every college basketball game played at NRG (formerly Reliant Stadium) dating back to 2002, and found what looked to be a trend.

From (3/27/2015):

After Friday’s action, there have been 15 college basketball games played in NRG neé Reliant Stadium since it opened in 2002. In those games, the 30 participating teams have made 178 of their 553 3-point attempts for a success rate of 32.2 percent. This could be the result of cataclysmic randomness, but if a team shot 32.2 percent over 30 games, you’d be pretty convinced they weren’t a very good shooting team. A team shooting like that this season would rank 260th in Division-I, and this includes six games using the shorter 3-point line.

Pomeroy’s point about randomness is not to be discounted: the game between Gonzaga and Duke that followed saw the former falter (2 for 10) and the latter thrive (8 for 19) from behind the arc. But when you tally the numbers up, it’s certainly something. His kicker? None of the 30 teams in those games shot lower than 30% from three in their respective seasons (not including the NRG games).

More numbers: In the 2011 national championship game, Butler set a record for worst-ever shooting performance in a title game, stinking it up to the tune of 18.8%. No team has ever shot 50% from the field or higher at NRG.

So then, on a more tangible level, what’s different about the stadium?

For one, last season, an enormous black curtain hung behind both baskets. So there’s a depth perception factor at play for shooters, perhaps. There’s also an elevated floor surface, as is somewhat common, particularly come tournament time, at multi-sport venues. The arena is especially cavernous, offering a different feel than, say, Duke’s Cameron Indoor. All these things may come into play. We’re not air-flow scientists, so we won’t go there. But even the smallest of factors can certainly affect players mentally, sometimes in ways they—or we—are unaware of.

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Here’s what it looked like last year:


And this is what it looked like in 2011:


This season, it appears NRG has eschewed the curtain from last year’s regionals. See the seating chart below.


We don’t know how this will impact things, and really, we won’t ever know for certain. What we do know for sure is that Oklahoma, Villanova and Syracuse all love to chuck it from outside and will do so regardless of the environment. The Sooners hit at the second-best clip in the country thanks to the dominance of Buddy Hield, who as the second-leading scorer in the nation derived 47.8% of his points from the three while shooting it at a 46.5% clip.

Villanova fields four regulars shooting over 35% from three, and prior to a poor shooting performance in the Elite Eight had been highly effective from downtown in this tournament. Syracuse has little inside presence and its four leading scorers are all able three-point shooters, with Tyler Lydon at just under 41% and Michael Gbinije just under 40%.

North Carolina may stand to benefit, as the Final Four team least-reliant on the three — but then again, the Tar Heels may have to take more than usual when facing Syracuse’s 2–3 zone, designed to keep bigs out of the paint and force outside shots. The last time the two teams met, Carolina actually took 25 threes to Syracuse’s 20 in a five-point victory in Chapel Hill.

In the end, it might all mean nothing. Or might mean we’re in for a lot of rebounds. It might be the only way to stop Buddy Hield. It definitely might mean we’ll be hearing a lot more complaints, if history holds.

At this rate, perhaps they can hold the game on an aircraft carrier next year.