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March 12, 2012
Perimeter Orientations
Can Threes Get You to New Orleans?

by John Gasaway

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There's a problem with measuring how important the ability to make three-point shots is in the NCAA tournament. By definition, the best teams in the country tend to do without threes. With the outstanding exception of Ohio State last year, teams given a No. 1 seed by the NCAA selection committee don't attempt many shots from beyond the arc.

Such teams don't succeed because they stay away from threes, of course. It's just that top seeds like Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Michigan State feel they have adequate means at their disposal to score enough points in the paint. More often than not, those top seeds have been proven correct.

Not every team has that luxury, however. So with the brackets set for this year's tournament, I want to take a look at which offenses in the field of 68 rely most heavily on three-point attempts. By definition these offenses will be somewhat more susceptible to swings in performance -- both for better and for worse -- than other tournament teams on that side of the ball, though it's a susceptibility that can be mitigated with consistency in other areas (taking care of the ball, getting to the line, etc.). Also note that you'll see some overlap between this list and a ranking of perimeter-oriented offenses that I did earlier this season. In fact every team I talked about back then made the tournament. Maybe there's something to this so-called "three-point shot" the youngsters talk about nowadays.

By the way, the numbers below refer to the percentage of each team's shot attempts that were threes in conference play. If you're about to face one of these perimeter-oriented outfits, you need to hope the threes aren't falling for your opponent this week:

Florida (3FGA/FGA: 0.45)
The Gators were never able to piece together enough really "good" wins this season to impress the selection committee or fans in general, or so Billy Donovan's team is seeded on the 7-line in the West. UF will face Virginia in a round of 64 game in Omaha, and to call this match-up an instance of good offense vs. good defense would be an understatement. The Cavaliers had the best D in the ACC in conference play this year, and the Gators were last seen hanging 56 points on Kentucky in the first 29 minutes of their 74-71 loss to the Wildcats in the SEC semifinals. (Florida's problem was they were then stuck on 56 for the next few minutes. Still, it was a strong start.) For the year Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy are making a combined 43 percent of their threes, Erving Walker is also above-average from the perimeter, and freshman Bradley Beal has come on strong of late (7-of-16 from outside in two SEC tournament games). Ironically Florida was hurt badly this year by their opponents' success from beyond the arc, but if that karma flips in the Gators' favor this team can look a lot better in a hurry.

Michigan (3FGA/FGA: 0.45)
John Beilein has long shown a preference for perimeter-oriented offense, and this 2012 Michigan team is a fine example of their coach's predilection. Co-leading scorers Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. have combined to make just 32 percent of their threes, but the Wolverines have offset that relatively low success rate by minimizing turnovers (Burke, a freshman point guard, gets a lot of the credit there) and with good shooting from supporting players like Zack Novak and Evan Smotrycz. The Wolverines are a No. 4 seed in the Midwest, where they'll play Ohio and, should they win, face either Temple, South Florida, or California. If their threes are falling Michigan has everything else in place -- including and especially defense -- to make it out of their pod in Nashville and proceed to the second weekend in St. Louis.

Iowa State (3FGA/FGA: 0.43)
After a seven-year absence the Cyclones have returned to the NCAA tournament in Fred Hoiberg's second season at the helm as head coach. Don't let this team's No. 8 seed fool you. As of this year the Big 12 plays a round-robin schedule, and against the same teams that NCAA No. 3 seed Baylor had to face, ISU was almost exactly as good on a per-possession basis as were the Bears. Scott Christopherson and Tyrus McGee don't have the notoriety of teammate Royce White, but they do tend to make their threes. If they do so against defending national champion Connecticut in Louisville this week, the Huskies could be in for a game.

Vanderbilt (3FGA/FGA: 0.42)
I probably don't have to oversell the only team in Division I that can say the words, "We beat Kentucky in calendar 2012." I'll only add that the Commodores are the most accurate team in this particular group, having connected on 42 percent of their threes in SEC play. John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, and Brad Tinsley are all north of 40 percent from outside for the year, and the presence of a bona fide interior scorer like Festus Ezeli only adds to the challenge faced by opposing defenses. A No. 5 seed in the East, the Commodores will face Harvard in the round of 64. If Kevin Stallings' men are hitting their threes and getting to the line and doing both as often as they did in conference play, the Crimson's first tournament appearance since 1946 may be a brief one.

Duke (3FGA/FGA: 0.41)
The Blue Devils are an excellent example of a balanced offense that shoots a lot of threes, and if that sounds contradictory stay with me. Mike Krzyzewski's team excels at literally all facets of offense. Their shooting from both sides of the arc is accurate, they take outstanding care of the ball, they're pretty good on the offensive glass, and they get to the free throw line often. (The combination of decent offensive rebounding and lots of threes is particularly unusual.) This is not the strongest defense you'll see in the field of 68, but if Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, and Andre Dawkins are hot from outside it may not matter. Duke's a No. 2 in the South, and if they get by Lehigh they'll face either Notre Dame or Xavier. If it's the former, note that the Irish have been known to fire up an occasional three in their own right.

All of these perimeter-oriented teams have the ability to pack the largest number of points into the smallest number of possessions. Don't be surprised if they produce a surprise or two -- good or bad -- in the next few days.

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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