College Basketball Report: Three-Point Shooting is Mired in the Worst Two-Year Stretch in History

For just the second time ever, the Division-I-wide three-point percentage fell under 34% in 2020-21.
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In 1986-87, the first college basketball season in which the NCAA fully adopted the three-point shot, UNLV went all in, taking 781 attempts, the most in Division-I that year. That’s an insane number of three-point attempts. No other school was within 100 of the Runnin’ Rebels downtown barrage.

Wow! 781 attempts. That’s so many.

Excluding 2019-20 and 2020-21, which were both dramatically altered by COVID-19, where do you think UNLV's 781 attempts would have landed in 2018-19, the most recent run-of-the-mill college basketball season?

Make a guess. I'll wait.

The number of three-point attempts for the team that took the most in the first year of the shot can’t be that far off from where we are today, right?

Would UNLV have been top-25 in attempts in 2018-19? Not close.

Top-50? Keep going.

Top-100? Nice try.

The answer: 125th.

UNLV’s 781 three-point attempts, which led D-I in 1986-87 would have been 125th in 2018-19.

That same inaugural three-point season, second-place Providence attempted 665 threes, 116 fewer than UNLV. Only two other schools even attempted 500-plus threes (Temple – 575, San Diego State – 521). Fifth place New Mexico took 498 threes, 283 fewer than UNLV.

In the first season of the NCAA-wide three-pointer, 283 attempts separated the team who took the most from the team who took the fifth-most.

What about fifth-place New Mexico’s 498 attempts in 1986-87? Where would that number have placed the Lobos in 2018-19?

350th .

There were 353 teams in all of D-I that season. That means team that finished fifth overall in three-point attempts in 1986-87 would have fifth from the bottom in 2018-19.

In 1986-87, only four teams attempted more than 498 threes.
In 2018-19, only four teams attempted fewer than 498 threes.

To flip the comparison around, Kennesaw State finished dead last (353rd) in D-I in three-point attempts in 2018-19 with 438. Transplant that same team to 1986-87 and they would have the 17th-most three-point attempts in the nation.

Have I thrown enough math at you yet? Begging for mercy? Okay, I’ll stop.

But only if you’ll acknowledge my point; the one that I just took 310 words of an intro to make: The three-point shot is on the rise and it isn’t going anywhere.

Its use and popularity will continue to grow and expand year after year after year.

And why is that?

Because of a very simple mathematical reality that the basketball community has finally embraced:

3 > 2.

Or, in basketball parlance, three points is more than two points. And if your team makes three-point shots at a high enough clip, the benefit of the lower percentage three-point shot outweighs the higher percentage two-point shot (thanks to effective field goal percentage, we have a good idea of what that threshold is).

Even schools that traditionally play a two-big lineup are shifting toward more shooter-centric, four-around-one or three guards, one stretch four, and one center lineups. Everyone wants their slice of the three-point shot pie.

Take a program like North Carolina, for example. Under Roy Williams (2003-04 through 2020-21) the Tar Heels never finished higher than 31st in D-I in three-point attempts. They were 100th or lower in attempts for 12 of Williams’ 18 seasons. Every indication is that that reality will change going forward. We haven’t seen Hubert Davis’ game plans in action, but the transfers he brought in (Oklahoma’s Brady Manek, Virginia’s Justin McKoy, and Marquette’s Dawson Garcia) tell you everything you need to know about how Coach Davis intends to run his team. I reckon that’s what happens when your new head coach has the third-highest career three-point percentage in NBA history (44.1%, behind only Steve Kerr and Seth Curry).

Here’s the million dollar question: Is this nationwide progression towards more and more threes the right approach? Are teams making enough of them to make it worth the growing number of attempts?

Therein lies the rub.

Backstory

In the summer of 2020, as I sat in my house doing not much thanks to COVID-19, I thought to myself, “Hey, the NCAA moved the three-point line back to FIBA distance last season (22 feet, one-and-three-quarter inches). I wonder if that had any effect on three-point shooting numbers.”

So I did the only logical thing a rational person would do after asking themselves such a question in the middle of a pandemic. I researched every D-I three-point shot ever, 1986-87 through 2019-20.

I found out that the shift back of the three-point line prior to 2019-20 did, in fact, affect three-point percentages quite dramatically. So dramatically, in fact, that 2019-20 yielded the lowest three-point percentage across D-I in the history of the shot.

For the first time ever, the D-I-wide average three-point percentage dipped below 34%; 33.47% (80,555 out of 240,649) to be more exact.

Make sure to read last year’s article for more information.

Given the interesting discoveries of year one, it only made sense for me to make this three-point study an annual tradition, publishing all my work on, wait for it, Labor Day. Get it? Publishing my *work* on *Labor* Day. I’ll see myself out.

For those of you that chose to look past my corny dad joke and stick around, you get to reap the benefit of finding out if things improved at all from beyond the arc in 2020-21.

Did three-point numbers level off in year two of the new distance? Did the D-I-wide three-point percentage come back up over 34%? Did attempts continue to climb at their typical pace?

With the Delta variant popping up everywhere this summer and once again limiting my ability to do things, I had plenty of time on my hands to add the 2020-21 three-point data to my research.

Speaking of the Delta variant, it should be noted that COVID-19 complications caused wild variety in number of games, makes, and attempts per team. However, the percentages and averages progressed essentially as one would expect them to. So we’ll take the data with a grain of salt, but we won’t throw it out. We’ll just be wise when evaluating 2020-21.

Without further ado, here’s the big reveal:

2020-21 was a better year across D-I for three-point percentage, but not by much. For just the second time in history, the Division I-wide three-point percentage was under 34%. The specific total was 33.98% (60,743 out of 178,751).

We did see half a percentage point jump from 2019-20 (33.47% to 33.98%, 0.51% to be exact), which makes sense as players are a year into adjusting to the new distance. However, despite the uptick, it still is the second-lowest percentage ever.

Here's a chart showing the annual progression of three-point field goal percentage across D-I. The second set of data has the years sorter according to rank of highest three-point percentage. 

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 3.15.41 AM

Even with the lower percentage, teams and individual players have not shied away from letting it fly. Attempts per team per game (APTPG) are up over 20 for the 6th straight season. 2020-21 was the third-highest APTPG ever (21.72), falling behind only the two years in the leadup to the change in distance.

Despite being technically higher, 2020-21’s APTPG was essentially the same as 2019-20 (21.72 to 21.69). This could mean that the number of attempts per game are starting to level off a bit. The number could also just have been an outlier.

Here's a look at the annual APTPG progression (ordered chronologically and by # of attempts):

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 3.12.40 AM

Also for the 6th straight season, makes per team per game (MPTPG) have crossed a new threshold. The nationwide average has been over seven now for each of those seasons.

Last season’s 7.38 MPTPG is the fourth-highest ever, trailing only the three years before the distance change for 2019-20. 7.75 MPTPG is the highest ever, occurring in 2018-19, the year immediately preceding the deeper range.

Here's a look at the annual MPTPG progression (ordered chronologically and by # of attempts):

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 3.14.43 AM

What does all this mean? “Give me the TL;DR version, you think to yourself.”

Okay fine, here you go:

Teams are taking (slightly) more threes, making more threes, but shooting at the second-lowest percentage ever.

Baylor

National Champion Baylor was an interesting case study this season. Three-point shooting was certainly not the only metric that helped the Bears secure their first-ever national championship, but it was certainly an important metric.

Why? Because they buck the trend we saw above with three-point percentage going down as more shots go up. We typically assume that “high percentage = low attempts” and “low percentage = high attempts”

Baylor paced D-I, shooting 41.3% (299-724) from three. Only four teams shot at or over 40% from three this year – with Baylor as the only major conference team.

  • Baylor – 41.3% (299-724)
  • South Dakota State – 40.4% (185-458)
  • Colgate – 40.3% (148-367)
  • Fort Wayne – 40.0% (204-510)

In fact, Baylor was also the only major conference team in the top-10 of three-point percentage. Iowa and Michigan were the only other two major conference teams to crack the top-20. Incredibly, Baylor led second-place South Dakota State by almost a full percentage point (0.91%) in team three-point percentage.

Given what we learned above, it would be easy to think, “Oh that’s nice that Baylor shot such a high percentage, it must be an outlier with a small sample size.” But that’s where you would be wrong. Why? Because Baylor, in addition to shooting a high percentage, was top-20 in D-I in attempts. To be precise, they had 724 attempts, 19th-most in DI.

Three other teams (one high major) joined Baylor in the top-20 of both team three-point percentage and attempts: Liberty (7th in percentage, 13th in attempts), Iowa (11th, 9th) and Oral Roberts (16th, 2nd).

Screen Shot 2021-09-06 at 3.19.35 AM

Top 20 in three-point % AND # attempts 

  1. Baylor | 19th in attempts
  2. South Dakota State | 239th 
  3. Colgate | 304th
  4. Purdue-Fort Wayne | 180th
  5.  California Baptist | 137th
  6. Detroit Mercy | 101st
  7. Liberty | 7th
  8. South Dakota | 218th
  9. Weber State | 202nd
  10. McNeese State |162nd
  11. Iowa | 9th
  12. Cal State Fullerton | 316th
  13. Arkansas State | 277th
  14. Bryant | 39th
  15. Michigan | 145th
  16. Oral Roberts | 2nd
  17. Florida Atlantic | 94th
  18. Texas State | 305th
  19. VMI | 22th
  20. American | 343

Where Do We Go From Here?

In all likelihood, the D-I-wide three-point percentage will jump back over 34.0 in the 2021-22 season. The percentage was just two-hundredths of a point away this year.

I also expect the number of makes and attempts per team per game to increase more dramatically than it did from 2019-20 to 2020-21.

Given a pretty typical offseason (at least “more typical”) teams will continue to settle into the new distance more consistently.

Freshmen are going to continue to come in more prepared than ever before to hit the shot, from position one through five.

The NBA wants shooters. Young men want to go to the NBA. Therefore they will work extra hard to make sure they can hit this shot and go to the NBA. It just makes sense.

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