UCLA guard ArronAfflalo can close his eyes and conjure every detail, a vision from a childhoodspent launching imaginary three-pointers in his family's Compton, Calif.,living room: Monday night, final seconds, down two, 50,000 fans watching in theseats and millions more on TV. In his mind's eye he curls off a screen, catchesa pass on the wing, jab-steps to freeze his defender and unspools a rainbowthree pregnant with possibility. Splash. "Man, that would be so sweet,"Afflalo says, opening his eyes and smiling at the thought of UCLA's 12thnational title. "But I wouldn't be surprised. I'd expect it to go in. Youhave to think that way if you're going to make a shot like that."
If history is anyguide, no lead will be safe at this week's Final Four in Atlanta--where theBruins will join Ohio State, Florida and Georgetown--due mainly to thethree-point line, the ubiquitous arc that's celebrating its 20th anniversary incollege basketball this season. "It's the single greatest equalizer in anysport, collegiate or professional," says Florida coach Billy Donovan,citing the sheer magnitude of the benefits: an extra point worth far more than,say, a gridiron extra point. "It's the equivalent of telling a footballteam: If you throw for a touchdown, you'll get nine points, but if you run forit, you'll get six," he says. (Add one more reason why Donovan has won overpigskin-addled Gators fans: He speaks their language.)
No figuresymbolizes the past and present of the college three-pointer more than Billy D,who's such an arc acolyte that it's a wonder he didn't name one of his sonsTrey. It was Donovan the point guard who rode the three with Rick Pitino'sgroundbreaking Providence outfit to the Final Four in 1987, the line's firstyear, and it's Donovan the coach whose Gators will arrive in Atlanta as boththe Final Four's most accurate three-point shooters (40.5%) and the nation'ssecond-best defenders against the three (limiting foes to 29.1%). The jerseysmay say florida, but the philosophy is pure Slick Rick. "Coach Pitino wasso far ahead of his time," Donovan says. "A lot of coaches were opposedto the three-pointer [when it was introduced], but he was the first tounderstand the importance of not only taking the shot but guarding againstit."
Nearly all of theskeptics have since been converted, however, and over the past 20 years thethree-pointer has revolutionized college hoops, for better or for worse. Since1986--87 its use has skyrocketed from one out of every 6.4 field goal attemptsto a record high one of every 2.9 this season entering the NCAA tournament.What's more, those numbers have only increased during this year's NCAAs. Theteams in the field of 65 have attempted even more three-pointers (a combined38.2 per game, compared with 37.7 during the regular season) and made slightlymore of them (13.5, up from 13.2) for a higher percentage (35.4%, up from34.9%).
"The collegegame has changed," says Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "Now you have fourand sometimes five guys on the floor who can shoot the three." It's enoughto remind everyone that the college three-pointer is far too easy, a 19'9"chip shot that detractors say is about as hard to hit as a 250-foot home run.But until the NCAA Rules Committee votes in May on a proposal to extend theline (most likely to the 20'61/4" international distance), the college treywill remain a minimal challenge that nearly any player can meet. (Coaches are aconservative lot, though: Among the Final Four bosses, only Donovan andGeorgetown's John Thompson III would like to see the line moved back.)
Not surprisinglythe Gators' chances for a historic double this week--they're aiming to becomeonly the second champion to repeat since 1973--will depend heavily on thetriple. Last year guard Lee Humphrey sealed Florida's national semifinal winover George Mason and its title-game victory against UCLA by drilling acombined eight second-half threes in the two games, joining such storied FinalFour sharpshooters as Duke's Mike Dunleavy Jr. (whose three treys in 45 secondssank Arizona in the 2001 final) and Michigan's Glen Rice (whose five threesstaggered Seton Hall in the '89 final). But the three-pointer can cut bothways: Who can forget the Final Four--record 40 three-pointers that Illinoishoisted in its '05 title-game loss to North Carolina? The Illini made 12 (a 30%strike rate) and missed all five attempts in the final three minutes beforefalling 75--70.
With so muchriding on the long ball, it's worth asking: What's your three-point stance?South Regional champion Ohio State takes a greater portion of its field goalattempts from three-point range (36.8%) than any other Final Four team, and ifyou stumbled upon the end of a Buckeyes practice, you might think they're abunch of unrepentant gunners. Before they hit the showers the team's topoutside shooters--Ron Lewis, Ivan Harris, Jamar Butler and Daequan Cook--allhave to "get their Bird," their term for hitting a perfectly swishedthree-pointer from the top of the key. (The expression refers to Larry Bird,who ended his practices the same way.) "If we're feeling good that daywe'll get more than one in," says Lewis, who has made 12 of 26 threesduring the tournament, including the stunning last-second equalizer that sentOhio State's second-round game against Xavier into overtime.
But if you lookmore closely, the Buckeyes are far less reliant on the trey than they were lastseason, when 40.1% of their shots came from the arc. The difference? Seven-footfreshman center Greg Oden, who provides an improved low-post scoring threat,and freshman point guard Mike Conley Jr., a master at penetrating into thelane. "The whole key is blending," says assistant coach John Groce."We were predominantly a three-point-shooting team last year, but [Oden andConley] have afforded us the luxury of having a balance in our attack, whichmakes us harder to guard." That inside threat worked wonders last Saturday,when Oden's second-half assertiveness helped free Butler and Lewis for thethree-pointers that broke open the game against Memphis and allowed OSU tocruise to a 92--76 victory.
When the Buckeyes'coaches scout an opponent, one of the first things they'll do is log on tokenpom.com, a Moneyball-type statistical database that, among other things,breaks down a team's ability to score from three-point range, two-point rangeand the free throw line. What they'll see in national semifinal foe Georgetownwill strike them as a simulacrum of their own team. The Hoyas shoot the threemore often than Florida or UCLA, but the rise of fearsome big men Roy Hibbertand Jeff Green over the past two years has caused Georgetown's reliance on thetrey to plunge from 42.6% of their shots in 2005 to 34.6% this season.
Compared with mostcoaches, JT3 has a novel approach to the three-pointer: He's convinced that the19'9" line has conditioned players to underestimate their ability to hit,say, a 22-foot jumper. "If you watch tapes of older games [from the daysbefore the three-point line], people are shooting from significantly fartheraway than they are now," says Thompson. "We tell our guys, 'Back up.You can make a much longer shot than that. But you've been trained to standright here [at 19'9"].'" Thompson would prefer that his players take anopen 22-footer over a more closely guarded 20-footer, and he has evenconsidered laying down an extended three-point line on the Hoyas' practicecourts to raise their confidence when it comes to shooting the deeperthree.
Then again, notall the Hoyas need to be convinced. Junior guard Jonathan Wallace, Georgetown'smost lethal three-point threat (48.6%), says he feels comfortable shooting"from at least NBA range [23'9"] and maybe a step behind it"--aboast that he backed up with supersized cojones on Sunday by nailing agame-tying trey with 31 seconds left in regulation during the Hoyas' thrilling96--84 OT win against North Carolina.
In the othernational semifinal between UCLA and Florida, the battle around the three-pointline will be fascinating from a defensive perspective. Only one team in theNCAA tournament (Duke) allowed opponents to take a lower percentage of theirfield goal attempts from three-point range this season than the Bruins (27.0%),whom coach Ben Howland has rebuilt in four short years on the basis ofgear-grinding defense. How does Howland's flytrap D take away the three? Forone thing, the UCLA players--all of them, really, but Afflalo and fellow guardDarren Collison in particular--are dogged on-the-ball defenders, equally adeptat switching out on shooters behind perimeter screens and preventing dribblepenetration that leads to kick-out threes.
But if the balldoes enter the lane, the Bruins are often asked to do something that'scounterintuitive. "You've got to have your players stay home and not playhelp defense," says Howland. "That's going against their instinct, butif you really want to stop the three, you can't get drawn into helping out. Somany teams get an open look at a three late in the game, and you say toyourself, 'Why did they leave that kid?' Well, it's because his defender wentand helped out instead of staying with his man."
On offense UCLAwants to shoot enough three-pointers to keep defenses from sagging, but it'srevealing that the Bruins' most prolific three-point gunner--Afflalo, who hastaken nearly twice as many treys this season as any of his teammates--doesn'tconsider himself one. "I'm a scorer who can shoot the three, but I'd ratherget into the paint," says Afflalo, who's merely respectable fromthree-point range, at 37.7%.
The Bruins do haveother deep threats in guards Collison and Michael Roll and forward Josh Shipp,but they'll have their work cut for them against Florida, which owns thatstingy three-point defense for a reason, as UCLA discovered in last year's73--57 title game loss (when it shot just 3 for 17 from long range). "We'vereally put a focus on taking away threes, and that's a credit to our team,"says assistant coach Donnie Jones, noting that the Gators' top big men,6'11" Joakim Noah and 6'10" Al Horford, are agile enough to challengeguards on the perimeter. "You also have to understand who the shooters areand force them to drive. We're not giving you threes, and if we do, you'regoing to take them two or three steps out of your range."
When the Gatorshave the ball, they try to maximize their frontcourt supremacy by establishingtheir inside game first. Only then do they look for the three-pointer, mostoften from point guard Taurean Green (a 40.4% three-point shooter) and Humphrey(45.5%). So deadly was the marksman known as Humpty in Sunday's 85--77 MidwestRegional final victory over Oregon that he caused an 11-minute delay when oneof his seven treys literally broke the net. "He's on fire," crackedteammate Corey Brewer amid the postgame revelry. "Nets are coming off! Goget ladders!"
Go get ladders.It's a request that these transcendent Gators have grown accustomed to makingover the past two seasons as they've celebrated two regional final wins, twoSEC tournament crowns, a regular-season league championship and, of course, anational title. As they stand at the gates of the college basketball pantheon,it says here that Billy D's boys have the teamwork, the experience and, notleast, the three-point superiority to cut down the nets again.
With a shooterlike Humpty, though, scissors may not even be necessary.
Read Grant Wahl's"Five Things We Learned" and Seth Davis's tournament breakdown aftereach day's action. ONLY AT SI.COM