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The 3 Is Key It propels some teams to success and sabotages the hopes of others. Three-point shooting is the game within the game that will decide the NCAA tournament

March 18, 2002
March 18, 2002

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March 18, 2002

Si Adventure

The 3 Is Key It propels some teams to success and sabotages the hopes of others. Three-point shooting is the game within the game that will decide the NCAA tournament

Are you in or out? Or, when it comes to the three-point
shot--"the most dangerous part of the game," says Florida coach
Billy Donovan--are you somewhere in between? On the eve of the
NCAA tournament, every hoophead in the land wants to know:
What's your three-point stance? Do you pound the ball inside and
opt for rare (but deadly efficient) threes, like Midwest No. 1
seed Kansas, or do you unleash them rapid-fire, like Duke, the
top seed in the South? Do you live and die by the three, like
new-look Indiana, or do you ration your triples on a
one-per-Knight basis, like old-school Texas Tech?

This is an article from the March 18, 2002 issue Original Layout

Whatever your preference, one thing is clear: The three-pointer
has revolutionized college hoops, particularly in the postseason.
Since the three's debut in the 1986-87 season, its frequency has
skyrocketed from one out of every 6.4 field goal attempts to one
of every 3.1 this year. During the tournament, teams attempt more
three-pointers (a combined 37.1 per game last year, compared with
35.4 during the regular season), but they make fewer of them
(11.9, down from 12.2). For every champion that has used the
three-point line as its Arc de Triomphe--who can forget the three
treys in 45 seconds by the Blue Devils' Mike Dunleavy that put
the whammy on Arizona last year?--the field is littered with
carcasses of teams that have shot themselves out of the
tournament with the trey.

The three has an added kick, too. "It used to be that the dunk
was the play that got the crowd into the game," says Clark
Kellogg, the former Ohio State star who's now an analyst for CBS.
"That's not the case anymore. It's the three-point shot. It can
invigorate your team if you're knocking it down, and it can
demoralize the other team."

And so, after a season in which teams jacked up more threes than
ever (36.8 per game, according to the latest NCAA stats), we ask:
Are you in or out?

It's certainly on the mind of Kent State coach Stan Heath. His
first order of business when he scouts an opponent is to suss out
how well--and how often--it fires the trey. "If a team is shooting
a high percentage, I want to know how it gets those threes,"
Heath says. "Is it spotting up in transition? Does it have a
guard who penetrates off the dribble and then kicks the ball out?
Does it throw the ball into the post and then kick it out? There
are a lot of different ways to get good three-point shooting."

Take Duke and Kansas. Both run with abandon, score in bunches
(the Jayhawks' offense leads the nation; the Blue Devils' is
second) and employ flytrap man-to-man defenses, but Duke puts up
more threes--23.7 a game--than any team in the field of 65 other
than Valparaiso. The Blue Devils' objective? Spacing. Much like
a football team that uses the pass to set up the run, Duke
launches threes in all manner of situations, especially in
transition, after offensive rebounds and off kick-outs. The Blue
Devils' better-than-average accuracy (35.9%), in turn, draws
defenders away from the basket, making it difficult for them to
help as Duke's four perimeter players penetrate with the ball
and cut to the basket without it. "The three-pointer keeps the
floor spread for drives, and it keeps the middle open for
post-ups," says assistant coach Chris Collins. "It has changed
the face of college basketball. You look at old tapes, and teams
were running their offenses in the 15- to 17-foot range. Now
teams are running them out to 22 feet."

That extra space is tailor-made for the Blue Devils' Kurt
Warner-type quarterback, player of the year Jason Williams, who
can make split-second reads--shoot, pass or drive?--in the
half-court offense. Duke has no set plays; instead it runs what
its coaches call "quick hitters," brief sequences that give the
whip-smart Blue Devils a multitude of options. Take "L.A.,"
Duke's favorite quick hitter, one version of which has Dunleavy
and center Carlos Boozer set a double-screen for Williams at the
top of the key. Williams dribbles by the screen, which picks off
the man guarding him, whereupon Dunleavy breaks to the wing and
Boozer barrels down to the post.

At this point Williams can 1) turn the corner and beat his
defender to the basket; 2) kick it out to Dunleavy for a three;
3) feed Boozer in the post; 4) penetrate and dish to a teammate
in the corner, usually Chris Duhon or Dahntay Jones; or 5) pull
up and pop his own three-pointer. Option number 5 is exactly what
Williams took at the end of last year's title game, when he
drilled the trey that coach Mike Krzyzewski would call "the shot
that sealed it for us." (Watch out for option number 4, though: A
year ago seniors Shane Battier and Nate James were more reliable
three-point threats than Duhon and Jones, whom wise defenses have
dared to shoot, often with successful results.)

If the Blue Devils use the Dirty Harry approach--shoot first,
ask questions later--then Kansas' more judicious three-point
strategy is the perfect foil. Only two teams in the tournament
have used the three-pointer more sparingly than the Jayhawks
(treys make up only 21.4% of their shots), who nevertheless are
the field's second-most-accurate three-point-shooting team at
42.3%. "Balance is important, but if I have to choose, I'll take
the inside shot every time," says coach Roy Williams. "We have
two very good inside scoring threats with Drew Gooden and Nick
Collison, and when you go inside, you have a better chance of
making the shot and getting the other team in foul trouble. I
want us to shoot threes, but I want the right people taking
them." For Kansas that means guards Jeff Boschee (a 46.5%
three-point marksman) and Kirk Hinrich (also 46.5%), who can be
merciless when defenses sag on Gooden and Collison.

Likewise, only 10 tournament teams shoot a smaller proportion of
their field goal attempts from three-point range than the 25.8%
taken by Maryland, the East's No. 1 seed. Still, the Terrapins
had the second highest three-point success rate in the ACC
(37.0%). "Our game plan is always to try to go inside first,"
says assistant coach Dave Dickerson, whose Terps funnel the ball
to solid big men Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox. In fact, the
majority of Maryland's three-point attempts come from kick-outs,
usually to All-America guard Juan Dixon, a 37.0% shooter from
long range. "When we get the ball inside first and then pop it
back outside," Dickerson says, "we have better looks at the
basket."

Which three-point approach will be more successful over the next
three weeks? That depends. Duke is vulnerable when its threes
aren't falling--witness late-season losses to Maryland, when the
Blue Devils went 7 for 33 from three-point range, and to
Virginia, when they were 3 for 18. As Dunleavy says, "We relied
too much on the three, and we got caught." On the other hand,
perimeter-oriented attacks like Duke's have ruled the tournament
in recent years. "My experience has been that post play gets
negated in the NCAAs because of the physical play," says Stanford
coach Mike Montgomery. "You'd be hard-pressed to think of any
post player in recent years who has dominated." The Jayhawks' and
Terrapins' formidable balance notwithstanding, consider that a
challenge to Gooden and Collison, Baxter and Wilcox.

Yet the three-pointer does more than just help us size up the
tournament heavyweights. It also:

--Gives minnows a better chance for upsets. The long shot
provides hope for long shots, particularly in the opening
rounds. Says Arizona coach Lute Olson, "The three-pointer has
changed things to the point that a team can have an unbelievable
shooting game--even if it's undermanned--and pull off the
upset." Olson knows. In 1992 his No. 3-seeded Wildcats fell to
No. 14 seed East Tennessee State, which had seven players hit
threes in the first half.

Three years earlier those same Buccaneers came closer than any
No. 16 seed in tournament history to knocking off a No. 1 seed
when they fell 72-71 to Oklahoma. "A lot of people still hadn't
figured out that if you hit one out of three from three-point
range, that's like shooting 50 percent from inside the arc," says
former East Tennessee State coach Les Robinson, a three-point
visionary who was realistic enough to know that he couldn't get
the nation's best athletes to matriculate in Johnson City. "At
East Tennessee State you could recruit shooters, though, and that
definitely was an equalizer."

In search of Davids with trusty slingshots for this year's
bracket? Illinois-Chicago (41.2%), Tulsa (40.5%), Penn (39.6%),
and UC Santa Barbara (39.2%) are all trey magnifique.

--Can turn decent teams into Final Four contenders. Remember
Providence in 1987? The Friars--a good but hardly great team
coached by Rick Pitino and led by high-scoring point guard
Donovan--led the nation in threes per game and rode the new shot
all the way to the Final Four. Three Friars (Donovan, Delray
Brooks and Ernie Lewis) connected on better than 40% from long
range that year.

Who's looking to Providence for divine inspiration in 2002? For
starters, Indiana, the South's No. 5 seed. "We play a
three-guard offense, and none of our guards are guys who can
break you down, go around you and dunk on you. But what they can
do is shoot the ball," coach Mike Davis says of his Hoosiers,
who buried 39.5% of their threes. "Not many teams have three or
four guys who can consistently knock down that shot."

He's right, but a handful of Final Four hopefuls have more than
one. Gonzaga, the No. 6 seed in the West, features mop-top
assassin Dan Dickau, one of the nation's most dangerous
three-point shooters (chart, above left), and sidekick Blake
Stepp, who nailed five treys in the West Coast Conference final.
Likewise, Oregon, the Midwest's No. 2 seed, won the Pac-10
regular-season crown thanks in large measure to its 42.4%
three-point shooting, tops in the nation. And keep an eye on
Western Kentucky, the No. 9 seed in the Midwest, which has a
pair of three-point gunners--Derek Robinson and Patrick Sparks,
who click at better than 40%--to complement 7'1" Chris Marcus,
perhaps the country's best center.

--Can set the scene for disaster. Not only does the tournament's
win-or-go-home format cause shooters to panic--do teams really
need to resort to threes when they're down by eight with five
minutes left?--but the pressure-cooker atmosphere can also drain
the moxie from even the most cold-blooded gunner. Sooner or later
the majority of teams that survive on the three will perish the
same way. During its runs to the past three Sweet Sixteens (and
to the regional finals in 1999), Gonzaga shot 48.4% from
three-point range in its wins and a mortal 30.2% in its losses.
In 2000 No. 10 seed Seton Hall hit a stunning 23 of 44 treys in
upsets of Oregon and Temple, only to clang all but seven of its
34 three-pointers in a loss to Oklahoma State in the regional
semis.

Even now, two years after that loss, the Hall's Darius Lane can
describe each misfire of his disastrous 2-for-18 shooting
performance from behind the arc. Similarly, former Kansas
sharpshooter Jerod Haase saw a sports psychologist for much of
the 1995-96 season because of his struggles from three-point
range, but that didn't keep him from melting down in the West
Regional final, missing all nine of his treys in a loss to
Syracuse. "I was numb," Haase recalls. "You keep thinking it's
going to turn around, but after you miss a few, it gets under
your skin."

"So many times it's either feast or famine," says Davis. "If you
get it going, you can really ride that momentum. But if the
shots aren't falling, look out." Sure enough, Davis's Hoosiers
were 8-1 this season when they made 10 or more treys but 2-4
when they hit fewer than five. Another candidate for implosion
is North Carolina State, which devotes more of its shots to
three-pointers (40.9%) than any other team in the field. And
what should we make of Missouri? Granted, the Tigers shoot the
three well (39.1%) and sink more treys per game (9.2) than any
team in the tournament. But they also rely on the mercurial
touch of guard Clarence Gilbert, who followed a 12-for-17
three-point performance in a win against Colorado last month
with an 0-for-7 jag in a loss against Oklahoma State.

Curious about some of this year's most percussive three-point
shooting teams among the higher seeds? Try Alabama (31.0%),
Georgia (31.5%), Cal (31.7%), Kentucky (31.8%) and Pittsburgh
(32.6%).

--Can help you in the tournament even if you don't shoot them.
Teams that have trouble shooting can survive by
trouble-shooting--namely, by slapping a tournament tourniquet on
their own threes, as well their opponents'. It worked in 1999 for
Connecticut, which won the national title despite never sinking
more than six threes in a tournament game, going treyless against
Gonzaga in the fourth round and shooting 1 for 6 against Ohio
State in the national semis. The Huskies' secret? They harassed
their victims into 26.1% shooting from three-point land.

This year's Huskies are no different. They average the fewest
attempts in the field (11.4 per game), followed by Bob Knight's
Texas Tech (12.1), but not surprisingly the Huskies, who allow
teams to make just 31.8% of their threes, clamp down on the
perimeter at the other end, too. Even more stingy are Pitt,
Oklahoma, Michigan State and Mississippi State, which all hold
their opponents to less than 30%.

Ultimately, of course, the national championship won't be won on
three-pointers alone. Yet by the end of this marvelous March,
coaches of every stripe will have reiterated the sage advice of
the aptly named Shooter, the whiskey-addled Dennis Hopper
character from Hoosiers: "Make 'em chuck it from the cheap
seats."

Only then, after 64 games stuffed with threes, will we find out
for whom that ubiquitous arc resembles a smile, and for whom it's
a frown. Only then will we know who's in--and who's out.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO Long distance operators By extending its offense 22 feet from the basket with a barrage of threes--that's Jason Williams shooting a trey at left--Duke spreads opposing defenses thin and then picks them apart. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Inside out It's rare indeed to see a big man like Collison shoot a trey for Kansas, which does most of its scoring from in close.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Out to launch Dickau, who takes a ton of threes and makes nearly 50% of them, is the most dangerous sharpshooter in the field.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Golden arm With his deft downtown touch, UCLA's Jason Kapono is high on the list of shooters that teams don't want to face.

Strength in Numbers

Teams can pose two types of three-point threat: They can make a
lot of treys, or they can shoot the three more sparingly but hit
a high percentage. (The scariest teams shoot a lot and make a
lot.) Here are the teams in the NCAA field that are the most
prolific and the most accurate from beyond the arc.

TEAM 3-PT. PCT. 3S MADE PER GAME

MISSOURI .391 9.2
W. KENTUCKY .380 8.7
OREGON .424 8.7
DUKE .359 8.5
VALPARAISO .350 8.3
N.C. STATE .359 8.3
CHARLOTTE .369 8.3
PENN .396 8.2
OREGON 8.7 .424
KANSAS 6.1 .423
ILLINOIS-CHICAGO 7.5 .412
UCLA 6.8 .406
TULSA 7.6 .405
UTAH 7.8 .403
MICHIGAN ST. 5.8 .398
GONZAGA 7.2 .397

Let It Fly

The players who shoot the three the most are doubly dangerous: If
they're hot, they burn the opposition, but if they're cold, they
put a chill on their own team. (Witness Missouri's Clarence
Gilbert, who made 12 treys in a win over Colorado and two days
later went 0 for 7 in a loss to Oklahoma State.) Here are the
most irrepressible long-distance shooters in the NCAA field.

PLAYER, TEAM 3-PT. % 3S PER GAME

JOBEY THOMAS, CHARLOTTE .443 3.8
DAN DICKAU, GONZAGA .467 3.6
TOMMY ADAMS, HAMPTON .390 3.2
DAVID BELL, MONTANA .398 3.2
JASON GARDNER, ARIZONA .391 3.2
CLARENCE GILBERT, MISSOURI .375 3.2
BRETT NELSON, FLORIDA .403 3.2
KAREEM RUSH, MISSOURI .412 3.2
JASON WILLIAMS, DUKE .384 3.1
EZRA WILLIAMS, GEORGIA .376 3.0

The Hottest Hands

The best three-point shooters don't necessarily put up the most
shots--nor do they need to. Consider this: The best long-range
bombers score close to 15 points for every 10 treys they take; a
player would have to shoot 75% from two-point range to match
that. Keep an eye on these top percentage shooters of treys in
the NCAA tournament. Rival defenses certainly will.

PLAYER, TEAM 3S PER GAME THREE-PT. %

DANTE SWANSON, TULSA 2.3 .504
DAN DICKAU, GONZAGA 3.6 .467
JASON KAPONO, UCLA 2.8 .467
JORDAN KARDOS, ILL.-CHICAGO 2.1 .466
JEFF BOSCHEE, KANSAS 2.9 .465
PETER ANDERER, DAVIDSON 2.7 .453
NICK JACOBSON, UTAH 2.4 .449
CHRIS HILL, MICHIGAN STATE 2.1 .446
JOBEY THOMAS, CHARLOTTE 3.8 .443
LUKE RIDNOUR, OREGON 2.5 .433