Kansas coach Bill Self built his Hall of Fame career on playing through his big men. Self's philosophy has always been to try to get easy shots around the basket and prevent the other team from doing the same.
Five years ago, if Self would have been able to watch his team from the future in 2017-18, he wouldn't recognize it.
The Jayhawks have joined the rest of college basketball, playing a small-ball brand of basketball that emphasizes spacing the floor and shooting more threes than ever before
"I do think it's the way to play as long as you've got four guys who can stretch it," Self said. "I'm so much more open to knowing that there's different ways you can really play well."
Across college basketball, the percentage of shots from beyond the arc has trended upward over the last four seasons and hit an all-time high this year with 37.5 percent of field-goal attempts coming from beyond the arc. To put that in historical context, the first season of the three-point line was 1986-87. That year, college teams attempted 15.7 percent of their shots from deep. And just four years ago, the average three-point rate was 32.9 percent.
A lot of people will point to the NBA as the biggest influencer, and the success of teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have certainly influenced college coaches, but even the NBA pales in comparison to the "let it fly" mentality of the college game. Only four NBA teams have a higher three-point rate than the NCAA average, and only the Rockets and Brooklyn Nets would rank in the top 100 in three-point rate in college hoops.
So, how did we get here?
If you had polled college coaches 10 years ago asking if they knew what KenPom.com was, a small percentage would have answered "yes." That's no longer the case, as the site has a much larger footprint now. Not every college coach studies analytics, but even many of those who don't still often think about the game in a more modern way.
Ken Pomeroy, the creator of the site, believes that the new generation of coaches is one of the main reasons more teams shoot the long ball than ever before.
"The game in the late '60s and '70s was really influenced by John Wooden's philosophy," Pomeroy said. "Late '80s and '90s and beyond, it was really influenced by Bobby Knight and his ilk. He was really kind of opposed to the three-point shot. Only under, like, very special circumstances you take a three-pointer, and I think it's taken years to get new blood in the game."
Knight was opposed to even the introduction of the shot, and he never embraced it. In 2005, for instance, when one-third of the shots attempted across college basketball were from beyond the arc, his Texas Tech squad took just 19.6 percent of its shots from deep.
"I've never been in favor of it," Knight told George Schroeder of The Oklahoman in 2007. "I think it's done a lot to take away from basic fundamental offense."
Coaches still want to run good offense, but the focus is more results-based.
"People understand from a points-per-possession perspective, if you're a team that's making 40 percent of your threes, you should not be passing up open threes," Pomeroy said. "It's going to give you a very high return on your effort."
To make this as simplistic as possible, let's again consider Kansas. Self's team makes 39.9 percent of its threes, which ranks 19th nationally. It also make 56.7 percent of its twos, 15th-best in the country. If the Jayhawks shot only threes at that percentage, they'd score 119.7 points per 100 possessions, and if they shot only twos, they'd score 113.4 points per 100 possessions.
It's hardly a coincidence that in the year teams are taking more threes than ever before, offensive efficiency is at its highest mark in Pomeroy's database, which dates back to 2002.
The most efficient offense in college basketball is Villanova's. The Wildcats score 121.8 points per 100 possessions, and—shocker here—they take a lot of threes! Jay Wright's team is 19th in three-point rate, attempting 46.3 percent of its shots from three-point range.
Pace and Space
Another outdated philosophy that the game is shifting away from is the belief that a quick shot is a bad one.
"If you look at data, three-point percentage is pretty high early in the shot clock," Pomeroy said. "So if you get an open look, you probably shouldn't pass it up."
No team has embraced this philosophy more so than a small school in Georgia.
A year ago, Savannah State was not allowed to play in the postseason because of Academic Progress Rate (APR) issues, and coach Horace Broadnax was searching for a way to keep his players engaged. Broadnax, who played for John Thompson at Georgetown, had always coached hard-nosed defense, and his offensive philosophy was to get the best shot possible close to the basket and often near the end of the shot clock.
And he abandoned all of that.
"I flipped the script," Broadnax said. "Playing fast and letting them shoot threes would be an opportunity to allow them to have fun and try to overcome that dip off at the end of the year. It kind of worked as far as the kids having fun and knowing they wouldn't have a chance to go to the playoffs but they get to shoot threes and they see I'm not going to say anything to them."
Last season, the Tigers played a faster pace than any team in college basketball and shot more threes than anyone, and it worked. They finished 10-6 in the MEAC—a one-game improvement from the year before—and their offense was more efficient than any of Broadnax's 11 prior teams at the school.
What many coaches figure out is that by embracing the long ball, it makes the two-point looks you get easier. The Tigers shot higher from inside the arc (52.0 percent) than they ever had before and 7.4 percent higher than the year prior.
Savannah State is eligible again for the postseason this season, and Broadnax has stayed all-in with the freewheeling style. The Tigers average possession lasts 12.4 seconds, fastest in college basketball, and they shoot an NCAA-high 55.8 percent of their shots from deep.
Broadnax's offensive philosophy now is to run the ball up the court as quickly as possible, space shooters around the three-point line and take the first shot available, which is often a kick-out three.
His team's success has convinced him its the way to play. This is Broadnax's most efficient offense ever and the most efficient in its league, and his team is in a five-way tie for first place in the MEAC with an 11-4 record.
Wanna be like Steph
Go visit a YMCA or playground and watch kids practice the game these days, and many are trying to emulate Steph Curry. And it's not just the guards.
The presence of big men like Dirk Nowitzki has also influenced how we think about and teach the game in America, and there's a premium on shooting.
"You just have more and more kids coming into the game that have grown up shooting the three, especially at the wing and front-line positions, the 4 and the 5," Pomeroy said. "There's still teams out there that don't have a 4 and 5 that can shoot the three, but those teams are really rare. Almost everybody has a 4 that shoots it regularly, and some teams have a 5 that does."
At the NBA level, the analytics have also shown that a post-up is one of the least efficient shots in basketball, and so teams do not run as many post-ups. That line of thinking has trickled down to the college game as well. When attending college practices, I've noticed in recent years that big men are spending more and more time practicing shooting from the perimeter instead of strictly practicing back-to-the-basket moves.
The desire to have bigs who can shoot has been a clear sign to young big men that they better develop their jumpers.
As for guards, they've changed how they play and practice as well. The most efficient three-point shot is an open spot-up, but the ball screen has become a huge part of college offenses, and players work more on shooting off the dribble than they ever have before.
"Steph Curry and his kind of reckless shot selection influences players," Pomeroy said. "You don't have to have two feet under you set and waiting for a pass to take a shot. You can shoot quickly off a ball screen or take shots that are four or five feet beyond the three-point line that if you can shoot it—those aren't necessarily bad shots."
In 2008, the NCAA pushed back the three-point line a foot, and there was a temporary hesitancy to take as many threes. It took seven years for the three-point rate to start trending upward again.
|Frequency of 3-pointers in college basketball|
The NCAA is also experimenting with rule changes in the NIT this year, moving the line back to the FIBA line (22 feet, 1.75 inches).
Notice in the chart that this season college players are shooting the ball better from deep than in any year in the modern era. (The best percentages historically were in the late 1980s when only specialists were shooting that shot.) At some point, the three-point rate will level off, but the fact that there are not only more guys who can shoot the shot, but also everyone is shooting it better than ever, suggests it's not going to go the other way.
Self acknowledges that next season his team will probably return to the past, because he'll have fewer shooters on his roster and more big men.
But his former line of thinking—"let them shoot threes; we'll just keep grinding it inside"—has changed.
He never thought he'd get there, he says. But the game has evolved, and so have the coaches.
Stats via KenPom.com and current through Feb. 28 unless otherwise noted.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter, @CJMooreHoops.