I’m old enough to remember when the three-point shot was a new addition to college basketball, and it was not without controversy. It’s been part of the game for better than twenty years now, and you’ll still hear people talking about how it’s revolutionized the game, generally in a positive way. The case for this is usually based on the idea that a great three-point shooting team can hang with and even beat teams that would trounce them if they only shot twos. Another common argument is that it adds drama, giving teams that are trailing a way to claw back in the final minute.
Overall, I tend to think it’s a wash. There are some benefits in terms of increased competition and drama, but the three also enables the excruciating chuck-and-foul offense that makes the final minute of tournament games take forever. And, for every time that the three-point shot allows a team to shoot their way back into a close finish, there’s a game where the three-point shot leads a team to shoot their way out.
Yesterday’s early game between Butler and Florida provided a great example of this.
In the final minute of the overtime, Butler had a one-point lead on Florida. After a terrible long-range shot by Butler, Florida got the ball down one with just over 30 seconds to play. They had the chance to hold the ball for the last shot, but after two or three passes, one of their guards jacked up an NBA-range three with 20 second to play.
Now, I know what the kid was thinking, which was more or less what the Butler kid was thinking on the previous possession: a three-pointer at that juncture would make it really tough for the other team to win. In Butler’s case, they would’ve gone up four, in Florida’s, up two with 20 second to play, forcing Butler to at least get a basket to force a second OT.
The problem is, it was a terrible shot, way too early, and Butler had everybody back. Ironically, it almost worked because it was such a terrible, stupid shot– it came off the rim at an odd angle, and surprised Butler forward Matt Howard, who almost lost the rebound. He managed to tie it up, though, and the possession arrow gave the ball to Butler. Two free throws later, Florida had the ball down three, and had to take a three, which again, was a terrible rushed shot. Butler flipped the ball out toward mid-court, and the clock ran out.
Now, I’m not complaining about the result– I really like this team, and as a big awkward white guy myself, I like being able to root for Matt Howard. But the manner of the ending was a little annoying, in a way that owes a lot to the glamor of the three-point shot. Long shots, particularly dramatic ones in the final minute, are so over-hyped that kids are prone to take them, even when it’s not the right play.
This specific game owes at least as much to the knuckleheadedness of Florida’s guards as the rules of the game, but you see this thing constantly in college basketball: a team that’s trailing by a small amount will turn to the three too soon, and end up digging themselves deeper. For every ten-point lead that’s cut to one in the final seconds, there’s a one-point lead that’s blown up to ten by teams shooting bad threes and fouling.
As I said above, I think it’s probably a wash. Without the three-pointer, coaches and players would find some other pathological stupidity with which to mar the end of games. I mention this just as a reminder that while we always hear about the good things the three-pointer has brought to the game, it has negative effects as well.