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Defending the three: A study of percentages and philosophies


Twenty-five seasons have elapsed since college basketball added the three-pointer, and still, there is no consensus on the optimal way to defend it.

Should coaches instruct their defenders to take the three away altogether, merely try to contest it, or goad their opponent into settling for long-distance attempts? And how should coaches digest the findings of Ken Pomeroy, who concluded this February that defenses, when examined in aggregate across Division I, don't have much control over their opponents' three-point percentage -- and that opponents have a certain situational threshold for deciding when to take a three, and after that, it's like playing a lottery? I imagine that control-freak coaches get worried by Pomeroy's data on the unpredictability of three-point percentages.

What Pomeroy believes -- we talked about this at length last week, to stave off offseason boredom -- is that the best three-point strategy, and the one a defense actually has a lot of control over, is to limit an opponent's overall number of attempts. Especially if you're the favored team. The fewer entries you allow an opponent to have in the lottery, he says, the less likely you are to get burned by an upset.

What I was curious to examine, from a coaching perspective, is not only the teams that adhere to the limiting-attempts philosophy (in particular, St. Louis and Wisconsin) but also the defensive schemes that "beat" the three-point percentage lottery in 2011-12. What are the ways teams try to tilt the lottery odds in their favor?

After writing a story on the Pack-Line Defense -- a packed-in, help-oriented man-to-man that Dick Bennett first used at Wisconsin-Green Bay in the mid-1990s -- I couldn't help but notice that three teams running pure Pack-Line this season were among the leaders in three-point field-goal D: Arizona, which ranked third nationally at 28.5 percent; Virginia, which was sixth at 28.9 percent; and Xavier, which was 22nd at 30.5 percent. Meanwhile, two teams that seemed to encourage opponents to take threes, Florida State and Syracuse, also managed to rank in the top 50 in defensive three-point percentage and were top-20 overall defenses in efficiency.

Even among elite defenses, one can find widely different approaches to three-point defense. What follows is a look, through coaches' eyes', at three effective schools of thought from this past season:

St. Louis' Rick Majerus and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan built two of 2011-12's elite defenses around the philosophy of taking away the three-point line. Majerus' Billikens had the nation's 10th-most efficient defense and allowed the ninth-lowest ratio of threes to overall attempts (25.6 percent). Ryan's Badgers were even better, finishing as the nation's fifth-most efficient defense and allowing the second-lowest ratio of threes to overall field-goal attempts (24.1 percent). And when opponents did take threes against Wisconsin, they made just 29.4 percent of them -- the 11th-worst percentage in the country.

When asked Majerus and Ryan to explain their rationale, the common thread was a belief in the death of the mid-range game. The Majerus Doctrine, in his words, is, "As bad as I was in math, I know a three is better than a two -- and while you find a lot of guys that are shooters, most of them don't have a middle game."

The Ryan Doctrine: "Young people are getting to be such prolific scorers from long range -- I see it in high-school and AAU games, and all the shooting drills kids do in workouts -- so the toughest shot, lately, is the mid-range jumper. I would much rather have people taking a two-point jumper than a three where they catch the ball with their feet pointed toward the rim."

The numbers bear this out: According to Synergy Sports Technology's logs, the two teams who forced the lowest portion of their opponents' jump shots -- not overall shots, but jump shots -- to be taken from beyond the arc were Wisconsin (45.9 percent) and St. Louis (50.0 percent). The Badgers also pulled off the amazing feat of forcing a nation-best 24.4 percent of its opponents' jumpers to be logged in Synergy as "long twos," taken between the 17-foot mark and the three-point line. (St. Louis ranked 30th, at 20.1 percent. The chart below breaks down the defensive shot distribution of all seven teams mentioned in this article.)

If you don't think the long twos-vs.-threes argument is important, consider this: While Wisconsin held its opponents to just 0.807 points per possession on three-point attempts -- an amazingly efficient rate -- it allowed just 0.628 PPP on long twos. There's a reason Ryan charts and cherishes the two-point jumpers UW forces outside the paint. The odds on getting beat from that area are miniscule.

Tactically, how is this accomplished? Majerus has a few key points of emphasis, the first being in transition, where he sends three players back -- but not all of them into the paint. "A lot of times they go to the three-point line," he said, "and then identify guys we want to make bounce it." Certain elite shooters are given an absolutely-no-catch-and-shoot designation, with penalty of benching for allowing it to happen.

On screen-and-rolls with a dangerous shooter, Majerus is willing to concede the drive-to-midrange option as opposed to giving up the long-range shot. He has the Billikens defend the pick-and-roll seven different ways based on his studies of current and former NBA coaches he admires -- Don Nelson, Del Harris, George Karl, Tom Thibodeau and Gregg Popovich. "A lot of college coaches have a condescending attitude toward the NBA," Majerus said. "I do not. I think the NBA guys actually do a lot better job than we do at defending in critical situations."

At Wisconsin, Ryan said, "the idea is not to let shooters get comfortable behind a screen." While the Badgers' hedging strategy in the pick-and-roll varies depending on the opponent, he estimates that the on-ball defender goes over 90 percent of screens to avoid as many pull-up threes as possible. On drives to the rim, they never same-side help off of a shooter, which would allow catch-and-shoot opportunities; the help has to rotate over from the back side. On kick-outs, they emphasize running shooters off the three-point line. "If someone is going to get a three against us," Ryan says, "we want them shooting on the move."

(*Duke, which uses a more extended man-to-man, has been historically great at limiting threes, but its defense was uncharacteristically inefficient in '11-12, so the Blue Devils are relegated to asterisk status here, rather than at the forefront of the discussion.)

At first glance, you might not think that a defense based on packing all of its off-ball defenders into a 15-17 foot arc around the basket would be good at contesting threes ... but as I mentioned in the intro, the pure Pack-Line teams were among the best at limiting opponents' percentages, because they're so good at recovering and closing out on shooters. Pack-Line teams are willing to give up three-point attempts, or at least the illusion of attempts, because they believe they can challenge most of them -- and opponents often settle for late-shot-clock threes against the Pack-Line because it's so difficult to penetrate off the dribble. Arizona permitted opponents to take 30.3 percent of their overall field-goal attempts from long range (the nation's 80th-fewest), Virginia permitted 32.4 (153rd) and Xavier permitted 35.6 (268th) -- all far higher than Wisconsin or St. Louis.

This is how James Whitford, Arizona's associate head coach, explained their three-point philosophy in the Pack: "It's a system more for keeping percentage low that it is for keeping attempts low," he said. "When guys drive, our defenders are already in help [position], so all their energy can go into early recovery. It's easier to get back to a shooter when you're only helping one way rather than two. In our opinion, open threes will kill you, but challenged threes won't."

The Pack-Line preaches hard, high-handed closeouts on perimeter shooters -- and although plenty of coaches preach that, the Pack puts its defenders in position to make more short, choppy (and effective) close-outs than long, flailing (and ineffective) runs at shooters. That adds to its success at limiting long-range percentages. Arizona's first big-stage showcase of the Pack's effectiveness in the Sean Miller era was against Duke in the 2011 NCAA tournament, when the Wildcats held the Blue Devils to 5-of-14 three-point shooting and pulled off the West Regional's biggest upset.

The Seminoles (the nation's No. 15 defense) and Orange (No. 17) look nothing alike on the court, but they both want you to settle for a contested three. Opponents only use around five percent of their possessions against these two teams in the post, according to Synergy.

Syracuse plays an extended, trapping 2-3 zone that leads to few post-up possessions and a ton of contested threes. An amazing 73 percent of 'Cuse opponent jump shots were threes -- nearly 30 percent higher than Wisconsin's rate! The Orange ranked 289th in three point attempts allowed, at 36.2 percent of overall shots.

Florida State plays a tenacious man-to-man that fronts the post at all times, leading to few interior opportunities and plenty of contested bombs. As we saw in the earlier chart, 66.5 percent of FSU opponent jumpers were threes -- nearly 20 percentage points higher than Wisconsin's rate. The Seminoles ranked 294th in three point attempts allowed, at 36.4 percent of overall shots. They depend on their length -- they place a priority on size in recruiting, even on the perimeter -- to contest long-range shots.

Stan Jones, Florida State's associate head coach (and a respected defensive guru), explained his team's philosophy thusly:

"We have the old-school belief that if you can keep the ball away from the easiest shots, and challenge the toughest ones, you'll have a higher percentage of winning," he said. "I'm still a big believer that the team that gets the most layups and free throws is going to win the highest percentage of games. ... That's why we work very hard to keep it out of the inside, and if you do get it in there, we have excellent shot-blockers. Our defense package gives the illusion that there is more opportunity to shoot the three than there is to get an easy two -- even though we put a huge emphasis on being there on the catch and challenging threes, trying to do something to affect rhythm."

Using that strategy, which is essentially the polar opposite of the No-Attempts School, the Seminoles have ranked in the top 15 in defensive efficiency for each of the past four seasons -- including No. 1 in the country in '09-10 and '10-11. However, when the '10-11 team looked as if it might be on the verge of a Final Four run, reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 10 seed with a suffocating D, it was derailed by a wild run of threes. VCU hit 12-of-26 treys en route to its fourth straight upset of that NCAA tournament. It was a rare -- and painful -- occasion in which the Seminoles came out on the losing end of the lottery.