Extended 3-Point Arc Is Contributing to Unpredictable College Basketball Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 23, 2020

Duke's Tre Jones
Duke's Tre JonesStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

The NCAA extended the men's college basketball three-point arc from 20 feet, 9 inches to 22 feet, 1¾ inches this offseason, resulting in both a significant decrease in three-point accuracy and an uptick in randomness in what was already an unpredictable sport.

Per KenPom, the national three-point percentage against Division I opponents this season is 33.2 percent. That is the lowest mark in the site's history, which dates back to the 2001-02 season. The previous low was 33.9 percent in 2012-13, and the previous high of 35.1 percent was just two years ago.

A similar thing happened the last time the three-point arc was extended, though it wasn't quite this drastic.

From 2003-04 through 2007-08, three-point percentage and dependency steadily climbed. Teams went from taking 32.7 percent of their shots from beyond the perimeter and making 34.4 percent of them to 34.5 and 35.1, respectively.

To combat that trend, the NCAA pushed the line back a foot from 19 feet, 9 incheswhere it had been for more than two decadesto 20 feet, 9 inches. Both percentages immediately dropped and once again hovered around 33 and 34, respectively, for six years.

But then Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and the Golden State Warriors became popular, and everyone wanted to start making threes. And as Villanova rode that wave to two national championships (2016 and 2018), the deep ball grew even more attractive.

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In the span of five seasons, teams went from taking 32.9 percent of shots from three-point range to 38.7 percent.

So the NCAA pushed the line back again.

The problem is teams are still firing up threes like there's no tomorrow, despite making them less often than ever.

The rate of three-point attempts per field-goal attempt has dipped from 38.7 percent last year to 37.6 this year, but that is still higher than every other season prior to 2018-19. And part of that decrease results from Savannah State's transition to D-II this summer: The Tigers led the nation in three-point rate by taking more than 55 percent of their shots from downtown in each of the last three seasons.

Combine that still-permanent green light with record-worst accuracy, and you've got the recipe for chaos on a near-nightly basis.

Kentucky's Tyrese Maxey
Kentucky's Tyrese MaxeyAndy Lyons/Getty Images

Already this season, an AP Top 10 team has lost to an unranked opponent 25 times. (There were only 12 such upsets at this point in the 2018-19 season.) Those 25 favorites shot a combined 26.3 percent from three-point range. Only two of themDuke was 8-of-20 at Clemson; Gonzaga went 6-of-12 against Michiganshot better than 35 percent.

Part of that poor shooting and general upset trend is a weaker talent pool than usual. College basketball lost around 80 players as early entrants to the 2019 NBA draft. As well, a lot of top recruits chose atypical destinations, haven't lived up to their potential, have battled injury or eligibility issues, or some combination of the above.

It's also undeniably a ripple effect from the Virginia-Texas Tech matchup in last year's national championship.

Teams seem more invested on defense and more willing to adopt a pack-line approach after watching arguably the two best defenses battle for a title. All levels of basketball are gradually eradicating the low-percentage, mid-range jumper. And now that the college three is a more difficult shot, more teams are focusing their defensive efforts on protecting the paint and ending possessions with defensive rebounds.

One other thing to consider: When three-point rate began to skyrocket, free-throw rate started to plummeta natural progression as offenses relied more heavily on shots less likely to result in fouls. From the high point of 40.5 free-throw attempts per 100 field-goal attempts in 2013-14, that number has steadily declined to its current rate of 32.3. That's a decrease of more than 20 percent in just six seasons. (Maybe the freedom of movement initiative is working after all.)

That combination of factors has come together to make this the least efficient season in KenPom history.

Michigan's Zavier Simpson
Michigan's Zavier SimpsonJose Juarez/Associated Press

The current average adjusted offensive efficiency rating is 101.2. The previous low mark was 102.1 in 2002-03. The average had been at 104.2 or higher in each of the past six seasons.

Even the best offenses just aren't that good this year.

Gonzaga entered play Wednesday leading the nation with an adjusted offensive efficiency of 117.8. That score would not have ranked top-10 in any of the past six seasons, and the last time it would've even been a top-five offense was in 2005-06, when it would have been in a three-way tie for fourth place.

That's quite the 180 from last February when I was toting Gonzaga as a serious title contender primarily because it had the most efficient offense in KenPom history.

What does this all mean for the NCAA tournament?

Over the course of more than 3,000 games this season, the data shows three-point shooting and general scoring are down. However, the law of averages doesn't apply to March Madness.

There will still be teams that unexpectedly catch fire from three-point range and make a run to the Elite Eight, just like there will be still great players and teams who suddenly can't hit the broad side of a barn one night on a neutral court. This tournament was bonkers before there was a three-point line, and it'll remain bonkers no matter where that line is.

But it might be a good idea to put a little extra stock in teams that have shown a repeatable ability to defend the paint without fouling.

Guard play is usually what's most important in the tournament, but this could be the year for Kansas' Udoka Azubuike or Gonzaga's trio of big men to fuel a championship run.

                                    

Data current through the start of play Wednesday, Jan. 22.

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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