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January 19, 2012
The Outsiders
Living and Dying with Threes

by John Gasaway


One of the things I've always loved about college basketball is the sport's manifest willingness to change its fundamentals. And the introduction of the three-point shot before the 1986-87 season marked arguably the single most fundamental alteration of any college sport since the adoption of the forward pass in college football in the early 1900s.

Now, 25 years after the three-pointer's debut in Division I, we find that a small but significant minority of major-conference teams rely heavily on shots outside the arc for the sum total of their offense -- so heavily that it's impossible to imagine these offenses operating without threes. Which major-conference offenses exhibit the highest degrees of perimeter-orientation? And how's that working out for them?

To assess teams' true stylistic preferences and not merely their non-conference scheduling philosophies, I'll be using numbers from conference play. Looking at how a team performs against its rivals at the time of year when "home" and "road" are systematically balanced can tell us quite a bit about a given coach's innermost wishes on offense. Let's see who's firing up the threes so far....

1. Vanderbilt (3FGA/FGA: 0.51)
Meet the only major-conference team that's attempted more threes than twos thus far in conference play. The Commodores have launched no fewer than 51 percent of their SEC shot attempts from beyond the arc. More importantly for Kevin Stallings' team, they've been making all those perimeter shots, hitting a red-hot 47 percent of their shots from outside. That level of accuracy's likely to come down a bit, of course, starting with tonight's game at Alabama. Still, with shooters like John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor on the floor the drop-off probably won't be too drastic. The 'Dores have started conference play scoring 1.19 points per possession, and there are things they do well besides hitting threes, things like offensive rebounding and hitting twos. Vanderbilt is highly perimeter-oriented, but they're not necessarily perimeter-reliant.

2. Iowa State (3FGA/FGA: 0.45)
Last night the Cyclones beat Oklahoma State in Ames 71-68 when Scott Christopherson banked in a three as the final horn sounded. Christopherson's game-winner was the 122nd three-pointer that ISU's attempted over the course of five Big 12 games. Like Vanderbilt, Fred Hoiberg's team is getting a good return on its perimeter investment right now, draining 40 percent of its threes in conference play. Unlike the Commodores, however, Iowa State is a little more dependent on those perimeter points. While the Cyclones do take care of the ball and also get to the free throw line often, this is not a particularly good scoring team on the interior. Royce White is effective in the paint, to be sure, but he needs help down there. More broadly, Hoiberg (like many perimeter-oriented coaches) chooses to deemphasize offensive rebounds, and the Cyclones' defense is merely average. In 2012 ISU projects to be the proverbial team that really does live and die with the three.

3. Michigan (3FGA/FGA: 0.44)
With the Wolverines we encounter our first example of a team where one can truly say, "If they ever start hitting all these threes, look out." So far John Beilein's team has not hit those threes, at least not in Big Ten play. Michigan is hitting just 29.5 percent of its attempts from beyond the arc in-conference, good for No. 10 in the category in a 12-team league. And yet here they are, a very respectable 5-2 in Big Ten play, with wins over the likes of Wisconsin and Michigan State. Clearly the Wolverines have found ways to win games while waiting for their outside shooting to heat up. In Ann Arbor those ways have consisted primarily of very good shooting inside the arc (51 percent in-conference) and holding turnovers to a bare minimum. Freshman point guard Trey Burke has been instrumental in both of those developments, hitting 51 percent of his twos this season and taking surprisingly good care of the ball for someone with the words "freshman" and "point guard" in his bio. If Burke and his mates start hitting their threes, look out.

4. Florida (3FGA/FGA: 0.44)
Now this qualifies as news. While you may not be surprised to see Michigan on this list, the fact that Florida's placing a heavy emphasis on perimeter offense this season reflects a clear shift in style for Billy Donovan. His Gators are again launching lots of threes for the first time since the days of Nick Calathes. The head coach must be on to something, because Florida's racking up 1.14 points per possession in SEC play. The Gators' efficiency on offense certainly hasn't been hurt by Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker, and Erik Murphy all connecting on at least 42 percent of their threes for the season.

5. Duke (3FGA/FGA: 0.43)
It's not at all unusual to see a perimeter-oriented team achieve a high degree of success, paradoxically, in the paint. Exhibit A for this phenomenon would be Mike Krzyzewski's team this year. While the Blue Devils are making just 29 percent of their threes in conference play (a figure which, oddly, qualifies as "average" in this year's ACC), Coach K's men are hitting an absolutely lethal 60 percent of their shots inside the arc. Opposing defenses preoccupied with defending all those Duke threes are leaving openings on the interior: the Blue Devils have scored a league-leading 1.11 points per trip in ACC play.

And as for the other extreme....
Don't expect to see USC launching a barrage of threes anytime soon. Just 19 percent of the Trojans' shots have come from beyond the arc in Pac-12 action. But you can't argue with results, right? Wait, maybe you can: 0.80 points per possession? Ouch! Other examples of a heavy interior-orientation on offense would include Oklahoma, UCLA, and Iowa. If you're a fan of long-range scoring, these teams may leave you feeling like it's still 1985.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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